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STAGE REVIEW

Smother love in ‘Grey Gardens’

Jacquelyn Piro Donovan in “Grey Gardens’’ in Dennis. Jacquelyn Piro Donovan in “Grey Gardens’’ in Dennis. (Kathleen A. Fahle)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2010

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DENNIS — The first order of business, in approaching the brilliant 2006 musical derived from the Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens,’’ is to get your Edies sorted out. “Big Edie’’ (Edith Bouvier Beale) is the society matron and self-styled diva whose not-so-covert competitive urges may have nixed any chance at happiness for her namesake debutante daughter — “Little Edie,’’ for short. And in Act 2, the actress who plays middle-age Big Edie in Act 1 takes on the role of Little Edie at that age three decades later. All set?

Playwright Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife’’) came up with this brilliantly hinged structure to investigate a dysfunctional house of mirrors. A brief prologue, set in 1973, establishes the squalid living conditions endured — indeed, embraced — by this pair of formerly rich recluses. Had the Beales not been close relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and not occupied a conspicuously decaying 28-room mansion in the increasingly glitzy Hamptons, they’d probably have managed to escape notice as mere cat ladies. Instead, their plight garnered lurid headlines and no end of morbid curiosity.

How could these two women of privilege have come to such a pass? Act 1 — a hyper-compressed, semi-fictionalized flashback to rosier days — lays the groundwork. We see Big Edie (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan) willfully upstaging Little Edie (Vanessa Reseland) just prior to a garden party convened to announce the latter’s engagement to Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (Tim Fitz-Gerald, too lightweight and never quite on top of the accent). To all appearances, Little Edie’s future is made: This Kennedy scion, the firstborn, is clearly destined for great things. However, Big Edie takes a break from warming up with her live-in accompanist and platonic gigolo, George Gould Strong (the over-campy Edwin Cahill) just long enough to chat with Little Edie’s intended. In the course of this innocent tête à tête, she’ll casually drop a few choice hints about her daughter’s putative escapades. Ipso facto, the deal is queered.

With her slightly goony smile and subtly stricken posture (something indefinable is off), Reseland is absolutely perfect as the doomed ingénue, and she lends her songs — especially “Daddy’s Girl’’ (Little Edie pins her hopes on a good word from her stern, unloving absentee father) — tremendous poignancy, without milking the lyrics for pathos.

The same, alas, cannot be said for Donovan portraying Little Edie as a 56-year-old prisoner of her mother’s destructive possessiveness. Donovan never lets you forget that she’s doing a star turn vocally, and the result is a loss of emotional resonance. Moreover, in Act 1 she plays Big Edie as a brassy failed chorine, rather than a genteelly ambitious society songbird à la Florence Foster Jenkins.

This dual role is pivotal, and perhaps few besides Christine Ebersole, who played the role on Broadway, have enough innate charm and unforced presence to do it justice. The inner life of a true eccentric is a delicate commodity.

Still, there are plenty of pleasures to be gleaned from this production — starting with the relative intimacy of the venue, which allows you to catch every well-crafted word. Also, Reseland has good company in Jamie Ross as Little Edie’s grandfather, “Major’’ Bouvier (who advises the girls of her generation to “Marry Well’’), and especially Beth Fowler as the Big Edie of Act 2.

By this stage of their lives, mother and adult daughter have devolved into an interdependence that’s equal parts fractious and affectionate. Fowler is terrific at tossing off the kind of casually cruel put-downs that women of Big Edie’s class and age can get away with. And ever the narcissist, she plays on Little Edie’s insecurities like a cat toying with a stunned mouse. In Fowler’s deft hands, Big Edie — now shriveled and bedridden, yet still the same self-satisfied, captious creature — somehow stops just short of appearing monstrous.

Sandy MacDonald can be reached at sandy@sandymacdonald.com.

GREY GARDENS Musical with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie

Directed and choreographed by: Pamela Hunt. Musical direction, Mark Hartman. Set, James Morgan. Lights, Christopher S. Chambers. Costumes, Meganne George.

At: Cape Playhouse, through Aug. 21. Tickets: 508-385-3911, www.capeplayhouse.com