Grey Gardens

by Jenny Block

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 5, 2009

Pam Dougherty & Diana Sheehan in Grey Gardens
Pam Dougherty & Diana Sheehan in Grey Gardens  

If you didn't already know the story was true, it would be impossible to believe. A mother and daughter from an affluent, well-known family, living the first half of their lives as the toast of the town (at least in their own minds) in a splendid estate and the second in the same estate now dilapidated, filled with cats, infested with bugs, and collapsing around their ears. With no one but each other and no one coming to the rescue, the two spiral down in a cycle of co-dependence and absurdity.

It is the story of Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. But more than that it's the story of aristocracy gone awry. It's the tragic train wreck from which you desperately want to look away from but cannot. It is the story of family who loves each other and themselves to their own demise.

It was an enviable life, or so it seems, a house in the Hamptons, a whirlwind of parties and highballs. But the reality is bleak. Big Edie's absent husband spends more time at the office and with his girlfriend in the city than he does with his wife and daughter. And despite their elegant veneers, both mother and daughter are desperate characters: as her father says, Big Edie is "The most pitiable of all actress without a stage." And Little Edie is pampered to the point where she's unable to be anything but a socialite.

A startling documentary (by the Maysles Brothers in 1976) was made of the story after reports of the Beale's downward spiral made the New York Times. Thirty years later, a musical was devised, first playing off Broadway, then - after further revisions - moved to Broadway where it ran for nearly a year.

The script, written by the brilliant, Dallas born playwright Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) is sung as much as it is spoken. Or it feels that way anyway. (How apropros when music is often at the heart of the family arguments). Mother longing for a career long gone, daughter wishing for one that will never be, a husband, a father, and a fiance who all wish the music "nonsense" would go away and these women would focus on what's "really" important - hearth and home, of course.

Wright has captured the comedy and the desperation, the love and the angst, the spirit and the loss. It is all so bizarre and so familiar all at once. You find yourself, throughout the show, wanting to point to one incident. See one sign. Place the blame. Was it her? Was it him?

Could that be me? But it is impossible, as is the lives of these two women whose lives became entwined in a way that never should be.

The Watertower Theatre's production of the show is haunting. The set portrays a vast emptiness and sense of impending destruction. Like a body in decay, Grey Gardens seems to hang from its own bones, clinging to the last shreds of life. The prologue takes place in 1973 when the house is already in shambles. When Act One begins, set pieces are slid onstage, the lively Grey Gardens inset on the nearly dead one. And Act Two allows a view inside the home. Though sparse, the sense of destitution is palpable.

The costuming is right on point. In Act Two they are disturbingly so. The lighting is flattering and bright and then eerie and intense, changing with the characters lives and moods. And the lead actors were frighteningly good. Kimberly Whalen is an absolutely lovely Young "Little" Edie Beale. Her lithe frame and beautiful voice paired with the character's dark secrets works splendidly.

The performances of Matt Moore as Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Jerry and Kenne Sparks as Brooks, Sr. and Brooks, Jr. go a long way toward cementing the authenticity of the piece. R Bruce Elliott is uncomfortably good as J.V. "Major" Bouvier and Norman Vincent Peale. One of the shows true standouts is Gary Floyd as George Gould Strong. He is remarkably handsome and his singing voice could melt the hardest of hearts. He is stellar as the gay "beaux" Edith Bouvier Beale.

Pam Dougherty brings a heart-breaking performance to the Watertower stage as Edith Bouvier Beale in the second half. She is scattered and distraught. Her sense of love and longing is acute. And her singing brings the old glory days of Grey Gardens into sharp focus against the blur of its later decay. But it is Diana Sheehan that will make audiences swear they are seeing not a performance but an incarnation.

In what seems an insurmountable feat, Sheehan plays Edith Bouvier Beale in Act One and her daughter "Little" Edie Beale in Act Two. The fact that so many of the characters play two roles in the show adds an additional interest to the piece. One can't help but wonder what it means to become one's own daughter in one's later years. Sheehan makes it seem like a breeze. In fact, you might think she is channeling these women as opposed to portraying them.

The story is a difficult one to watch that it is impossible to get enough of and the Watertower Theatre's production does Doug Wright proud. You won't want to miss these gardens from bloom to demise.

Grey Gardens will run through October 25 at the Addison Theatre Centre, which is located at 15650 Addison Road in Addison, Texas. Performance times are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 2:00 PM (October 24 only) and 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 2:00 PM . Ticket prices range from $25 - $40 and can be purchased by calling the WTT Box Office at 972.450.6232 or online. Group rates are available. For more information visit the WaterTower Theatre website.

Jenny Block is a Dallas based freelance writer and the author of "Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage" (Seal Press, June 2008). Block's work has appeared in Cosmopolitan (Germany), USA Today, American Way, BeE, bRILLIANT, the Dallas Morning News, D, Pointe, and Virginia Living, as well as on,, and You can also find her work in the books "It's a Girl" (Seal Press, March 2006, ed. Andrea J. Buchanan) and "One Big Happy Family" (Riverhead Press, February 2009, Rebecca Walker, ed.).