Musical tells two sides of a very odd story
'Grey Gardens," the Tony nominee now making its Boston debut at the Lyric Stage Company, is one strange musical. But then the women whose story it tells, Edith Bouvier Beale and "Little Edie" Beale - mother and daughter, aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, socialites turned cat ladies turned cult objects - were one strange pair.
The musical, like the 1975 film documentary by Alfred and David Maysles that inspired it, presents the essential mystery of the Beales' story without ever fully explaining it. How could these women, privileged members of a wealthy American clan, have ended up living in raccoon-infested squalor in their dilapidated East Hampton mansion? But the unanswerable nature of that question only renders the story more compelling.
Doug Wright's book deepens the enigma by splitting the Beales' lives neatly in two: Act 1 is set in 1941, when Little Edie is about to celebrate her engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., and Act 2 in 1973, when years of neglect have rendered the house almost uninhabitable and the women themselves almost unrecognizable. Whatever happened to them happens between the acts; our imaginations can sketch the trajectory - Edie's engagement and prospects destroyed by her mother's clinging interference, Edith's marriage broken by a philandering husband, both women's fates sealed by their mutually parasitic narcissism - but cannot chart every point in detail.
The first act stretches on a bit too long, especially because a brief prologue set in 1973 has already tantalized us with the sensational story we know will come. But it does capture both the glamour and the intertwined desperation of the Beales' earlier lives, and it casts a kind of luminous shadow over the outright craziness of the second half. In the Lyric's elegantly restrained production, directed with vigor and taste by Spiro Veloudos on Cristina Todesco's evocative set, it also takes on the aura of a rose-tinted memory that either older Beale might have had.
One twist, and a challenging one it is, has the same actress playing Edith in the first act and Little Edie in the second. Leigh Barrett is simply extraordinary in this dual role, creating both 1941 Edith's manipulative devotion and 1973 Edie's inchoate rebellion with consummate subtlety and detail. Her singing has never sounded better, nor more infused with the peculiarities of each character; Little Edie's bizarre accent, which Barrett replicates with uncanny precision when speaking, even colors her songs.
Sarah deLima, who plays the 1973 Edith, has also clearly studied the Beales on film. The scrawny patrician warble (related to but distinct from Edie's emphatic drawl), the skewed eyeglasses, the drawn face under a downy hank of ill-tended white hair - all the details are here, along with a deep but subtle grasp of Edith's neediness, crippling both her daughter and herself. Together, especially with the memory of Aimee Doherty's heartbreakingly fresh loveliness as young Edie, Barrett and deLima create a frightening but empathetic portrait of love turned sad and sour.
R. Patrick Ryan does a far-better-than-average Kennedy accent as Joe in Act 1, then returns as Jerry, a townie helper/user, in Act 2. As Edith's kept pianist, Will McGarrahan provides tuneful accompaniment and tart commentary for the elder Beale's early shenanigans, and Miranda Gelch delivers a graceful, understated performance as Little Edie's young cousin, then Jacqueline Bouvier.
"Grey Gardens" is not exactly a show you leave humming; it's too odd, and too much a pastiche of assorted period styles, for that. But Scott Frankel's music is occasionally lovely and always appropriate, and Michael Korie's lyrics - particularly in the cute-then-ironic "The Girl Who Has Everything" and, even more, in "Another Winter in a Summer Town" - both tell the story and create the distinctively weird mood that's required.
Speaking of weird, as any Beale aficionado knows, Little Edie's fashion sense was nothing short of bizarre. After losing her hair, she hid her baldness with a motley assortment of headgear, often fashioned out of creatively wrapped and pinned cardigans; she'd wear skirts upside down or twisted and tied. Charles Schoonmaker's costume designs lovingly re-create her eccentricities, right down to the pairing of white pumps with a bathing suit.
It's hard to believe that the woman in those get-ups was once the vivacious debutante who was going to marry well. But it's old news that truth is stranger than fiction - and sometimes, the best that fiction can do is to offer us a glimpse of truth without trying to force it to make perfect sense.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.