Not until the second act of the musical Grey Gardens, now playing in a rather splendid production at WaterTower Theatre, do we see the Edith Bouvier Beales whom we know from the Maysles brothers' 1975 documentary. The images we have of Big and Little Edie, as they were known, are mostly from that piece of groundbreaking cinema verité, which revealed the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy to be babbling recluses living with 52 cats in the ruins of a 28-room East Hampton "cottage" with no plumbing and, until the filmmakers showed up, few visitors.
Brimming with dialogue taken from the Maysles' footage, Grey Gardens, the 2006 Broadway musical, re-creates some of the film's sharpest moments: disheveled Big Edie (played at WaterTower by the amazing Pam Dougherty) jabbing at a pot of corn-on-the-cob boiling on a hotplate next to her filthy bed; Little Edie (Diana Sheehan) in a leopard-print swimsuit, laddered black stockings and white pumps, peering through binoculars at a bathroom scale as she whines about her diet; Little Edie again, in bright red, marching around the foyer to a patriotic tune.
Hard to believe these women were not someone's eccentric inventions—mother and daughter Havishams rambling for decades through dark rooms full of mouse-chewed wedding cakes. But they were real, all right, and the beautiful part of the musical's second act is how it reflects the melancholy look and faded-glamour feel of the Maysles' film (WaterTower's realistic scenery by designer Christopher Pickart helps too). Then again, HBO's recent made-for-cable movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as Big and Little Edie also got a lot of it pitch-perfect.
That so many creative types have found ways to explore and exploit the lives of these ladies—there's also a 2007 documentary, Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway, about the making of the musical—well, it's proof that there was more to the fascination with the Beales than just their familial ties to cousin Jackie and her sister, Lee Radziwill. In Grey Gardens (we're back to the musical now), they become two of the great characters of the American theater thanks to a witty book by Doug Wright, a haunting score by Scott Frankel and, for all 21 songs, the inventive lyrics of Michael Korie.
The musical seesaws between triumphs and tragedies. It's a riches-to-rags tale of an aristocratic American family who once had great wealth and social standing. That's what the first act, set in 1941 on the day of Edie's engagement to a Kennedy, is all about. And it's a saga of mother and daughter bound by crippling co-dependency, crushing loneliness and a shared fear of an outside world that has spun away from them. It even goes beyond that with mythic allusions in the music to the poisonous effects of personal vanity and untreated mental illness.
Both ladies are crazy as bedbugs. For all its piteous situations, the kookiness of the Beales makes the most of Grey Gardens, a riotously funny peek behind the shutters. "Oh, haweeeee," says Little Edie to the audience (we take the place of the Maysles as intruders in the dusty mansion). She kicks off Act 2, set in 1973 when she's in her 50s, with the show's patter-song, "The Revolutionary Costume for Today." In it she celebrates how her flair for improvised fashion serves to protest the stuffiness of her staunchly Republican Hamptons neighbors. She sings:
Reinvent the objét trouve,
Make a poncho from a duvet,
Then you can be with cousin Lee
On Mr. Blackwell's list.
The full-length velvet glove hides the fist.
Plucky Edie. Wacky Edie. Sick in the head Edie. Exhibitionist but agoraphobic, Little Edie's a walking textbook of conflicting disorders. In her troubled mind, past and present meet and wash together like tidewaters. "Yesterday seems more real than today," she sings in the show's stunning final number, "Another Winter in a Summer Town," about as lovely a ballad of regret as there ever has been. Discovering "a middle-aged woman inhabiting me," Little Edie retreats back into that awful house rather than face...everything.
With a second act full of all that, it's easy to forgive the show's weaker first half. There we get lovers and relatives who'll waft through Act 2 as ghosts. Actress Diana Sheehan plays the elder, Big Edith now, all trilling laughs and flirtatious gestures; Kimberly Whalen is daughter Little Edie, age 24 and on the verge of marriage to dashing Joe Kennedy Jr. (Matt Moore).
Grandpa Bouvier (R Bruce Elliott) entertains the younger cousins, Jackie (Kaylee King) and Lee (Dani Altshuler), while Big Edith rehearses party songs with her live-in gay accompanist, Gould (Gary Floyd). Both Edies dream of careers as chanteuses in supper clubs or on the Broadway stage.
The cast of WaterTower's production, directed by Terry Martin and choreographed by C. Nicholas Morris, is, with the exception of someone in a minor role, a rare ensemble of powerful actors and strong singers who pull it together just right to pull off one of the great shows of the theater season so far.
Sheehan, a recent transplant from New York, is nothing short of a gift to Dallas theaters. If she weren't here to play Little Edie, it's hard to imagine who would have. It takes an actress of a certain age and emotional grit to get into a character this complicated—Christine Ebersole won her Tony for it at age 54—and Sheehan's in a class by herself in a performance that is broad where it has to be, subtle where it needs to be and heartbreaking throughout.
Whalen, who left Dallas for New York last year, sings in a fluty soprano and looks lovely. But as her first act Edie breaks down, she hints at the squawking cuckoo her character later becomes. "Trust me, Joe, my days at Grey Gardens are limited," she says, and we think "Uh-oh."
Floyd is a fine choice for campy ivory-tickler Gould. He looks suave in his crisp blazers (the costumes, which seem heavily inspired by the Broadway version, are by Aaron Patrick Turner). Floyd's solo at the piano, the ballad "Drift Away," is one of the evening's sweetest turns.
Elliott, sporting a handlebar moustache, is every inch the starchy patrician as "Major" Bouvier. The little girls are adorable.
Only Kenne Sparks, as the butler, sticks out as unpolished and under-directed. It's the second time this season Sparks has played a servant (he was a porter in Contemporary Theatre's Knights of the White Magnolia) and he's done it both times with a Stepin Fetchit grin and shuffle. Not good.
Over everyone, however, soars the magnificent performance of Pam Dougherty, a veteran North Texas actress. As the second-act Big Edie, she's almost always in bed, sitting up barely dressed under layers of quilts. From there she reigns, her singing voice blending with Sheehan's as if they share DNA. Looking just like her documentary counterpart, Dougherty's Edith is a charming, terrifying, terribly needy narcissist. With every blast of "Edieeeee!" the walls of her make-believe mansion seem to tremble.