Great theater isn’t always warm and fuzzy. Sometimes it can shock. Sneak up on you. Make your jaw drop.
Or, as is the case with the terrific new StageWorks Fresno production of the musical “Grey Gardens” at the Dan Pessano Theatre, it can envelop you so completely in an unforgettable world that you almost forget to breathe. Thanks to a bravura performance from guest artist Sara Gettelfinger (a member of Actors Equity), along with a sterling supporting cast, this production is a remarkable and intimate look at one of the strangest mother-daughter relationships you’ll ever see.
Meet Big Edie and Little Edie, aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who after the 1940s drifted into black-sheep status in their family, becoming hermits in the dilapidated Long Island mansion they shared. In 1975, documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles captured their unforgettable story in “Grey Gardens.” At first, people paid attention to the bizarre mother and daughter because of the Kennedy angle. It was shocking to think that important socialites such as them had fallen so far. But over the years, the film’s unblinking look at the 79-year-old Edith Bouivier Beale and her 56-year-old daughter, also named Edie — who ended up living with 52 stray cats in an atmosphere of squalor — afforded them cult status in their own right. The story is so strange, and the dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter so extreme, that it wavers between high camp and unflinching drama.
That “Grey Gardens” the musical so ably retains a sense of nuance and introspection is a testament to playwright Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, who delivered a deftly structured chamber musical — which includes a first act of conjecture about what the mother and daughter were like in 1941 — to Broadway in 2006. Christine Ebersole won a Tony award for lead actress in a musical for portraying the younger version of Big Edie in the first act and the older version of Little Edie in the second, set 32 years later. Mary Louise Wilson won the supporting actress award playing the older version of Big Edie in that second act.
Which brings us to the Fresno production, so ably anchored by Gettelfinger in the leading roles pioneered by Ebersole in New York. Gettelfinger was in the original New York Off-Broadway production of “Grey Gardens” at Playwrights Horizons. In it she played the younger version of Little Edie. In Fresno, she gets the opportunity for the first time to play the roles for which Ebersole won so much acclaim.
Perhaps it’s me projecting, but I can’t help but think that Gettelfinger’s involvement in the premiere production gave her an even deeper understanding of the leading roles. It’s like these characters are in her bones. Her performance is a wonder.
In the first act, as the overbearing mother, she brings a cold, muscular presence. (She bears a striking physical resemblance to Joan Crawford, thanks to Sue Jameson’s hair/wig design, which is a little distracting.) Young Little Edie (wonderfully played by Jessie Withers, who brings an extensive professional resume to Fresno) wants more than anything to escape the clutches of her mother, and she sees the best opportunity yet on the day of the party announcing her engagement to Joe Kennedy Jr. (a dashing Daniel Hernandez), the elder brother of John F. Kennedy. Yet Gettelfinger, as the mother, also lets us glimpse an intriguing tenderness for the daughter with whom she spars, and you can sense the loneliness of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. (She compensates with her gay best friend, Gould, played by StageWorks veteran Terry Lewis.)
In the second act, Gettelfinger plays the older version of the daughter, and it’s a doozy of a ride. We witness a woman who has made the transformation from gorgeous debutante to mentally disturbed middle-aged eccentric. She’s holed up in the now dilapidated family home with her mother (played with a warm, cranky charisma by veteran local performer Tessa Cavalletto). Strutting out to the porch at one point wearing white pumps, a one-piece bathing suit and a scarf wrapped around her head (she explains she’s losing her hair), her thick Long Island accent filling the air with comic soundbites, Old Little Edie is as outsized a character as they come. But Gettelfinger never strays into caricature territory. There is something terribly human, and terribly sad, about this woman whose world has steadily shrunk over the years.
Director Joel Abels uses the intimate Dan Pessano Theatre to good effect, creating a minimalist view with his scenic design of the grand Grey Gardens estate in the first act and the dilapidated version in the second. (There is a hint of clunkiness in the way the house’s front walls have to be moved off and on, but the payoff is worth it.) The small stage means that if you’re in the front rows, sometimes you’re literally just feet away from the cast — and it’s this unforgiving distance that makes you realize how deft the performances are. The supporting cast is uniformly good, particularly Mark Rogers as the stuffy Major Bouvier, Big Edie’s unforgiving father, and Harrison Mills in a dual role as butler and handyman. Elizabeth Payne’s first-rate costumes, from engagement-party dresses to a moth-eaten fur stoll, look as if they were rummaged from the characters’ closets themselves.
For some, it’s hard to imagine “Grey Gardens” as a musical, but I’d encourage you to expand your own horizons when it comes to what a musical can be. In this case, song and dance were central to the lives of the two main characters, and part of what the music accomplishes is a chance to really put them in that element. (The 13-piece orchestra, conducted by Anthony Taylor, is a delight.) But the greatest impact is the heightened emotion that music can bring to a story such as this.
In a tender moment, Gettelfinger’s middle-aged Edie escapes to the attic to muse on treasured mementos. In the show’s most beautiful song, “Around the World,” performed by Gettelfinger with a husky, meditative finesse, she contemplates trinkets from her life — a heart-shaped box of chocolates, a masquerade mask, a birdcage she plans to hang someday — and you can sense the melancholy of a life that didn’t turn out as planned.
I saw Ebersole’s performance in the original New York Off-Broadway production, and the melancholy of the moment is what I recall most from the experience. Little did I know that someday I’d be seeing Gettelfinger, whom I saw playing Young Little Edie in that production, offering me that same, tender and powerful moment — different than Ebersole’s, yes, with her own stamp and texture, but with the same kind of emotional impact. Thanks to Gettelfinger and this exemplary StageWorks Fresno production, my own “Garden” experience grows.
Sara Gettelfinger talks about her role in “Grey Gardens”