The 2006 musical “Grey Gardens”, currently playing Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre, should be subtitled “An American Tragedy.”
The tale of the once rich and socially prominent aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis—“Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, whose lives spiral dangerously out of control when their money runs out—seems uniquely tailored to American life. The work is rife with themes of social mobility, societal convention versus independent thinking, and the delusion of fame and celebrity, all virtually unique to our national experience.
But these themes are approached in such a tragic-comic fashion that by the show’s close, its cautionary lessons tends to bring one down several notches. Seen from a certain perspective, “Grey Gardens” is absolutely depressing.
This is not at all to suggest that the Unicorn’s production is anything short of brilliant. Heading the cast is Kansas City favorite Cathy Barnett, who plays the senior Beale, “Big Edie” in Act 1 with an imperious grace. In Act 2, set several decades later, when the money has disappeared but the Beale mother and daughter continue living in their crumbling, vermin-infested Long Island mansion—the titular Grey Gardens estate—Barnett plays the daughter, “Little Edie”, with a heartbreakingly jaded sulk.
Barnett is surrounded by an equally strong cast. Providing a disapproving foil to his daughter’s ambitions of musical fame is Robert Gibby Brand as J.V. “Major” Bouvier, Big Edie’s father, who threatens to cut off her trust fund in Act 1, a foreshadowing of the squalor to come. The major also disapproves of his daughter’s piano accompanist and house pet, the obviously gay George Gould Strong, perfectly portrayed by Seth Golay.
Keenan Manuel Ramos is the Beale’s upright butler, Brooks Sr. in the first half, and Brooks Jr. in the latter, providing important glimpses into the lifestyles of the Beales in their prime and as they spiral downward.
Musical accompaniment is spare yet strong and supportive, consisting of musical director Anthony T. Edwards on keyboards and Tod A. Barnard on percussion, with additional keyboards by associate conductor Daniel A. Doss. Vocal work is uniformly strong, both in solo work as well as in duets and group pieces (though it is a bit odd to see the entire cast outfitted with headset mikes in such an intimate space as the Unicorn). Sets by scenic designer Gary Mosby are well designed and versatile, properly conveying the Grey Gardens estate in its heyday of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and in its filthy decay of the ‘70s.
The tragedy of the Beales of Grey Gardens is one of spectacular mother/daughter co-dependency. In Act 1, Barnett, as the elder Beale, attempts to sabotage her daughter’s (Lauren Braton) chance at happiness by sharing racy secrets of her past with the latter’s fiancée, the scandal-wary Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (Brandon Sollenberger). Incensed at this, Little Edie storms out of the house on the eve of her own elaborate engagement party.
Decades later, long after Barnett as Little Edie has returned to Grey Gardens from a failed attempt of her own to find fame in New York City, she spars endlessly with her mother, now played by Kathleen Warfel. They bicker and yell and throw recriminations back and forth at one another like caged animals, both too weary to pull themselves out of the insidious conditions they now endure. The mother/daughter dynamic is similar in subject and tone to Martin McDonagh’s play “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
Scott Frankel’s music and Michael Korie’s lyrics provide some gorgeous moments, particularly in the bittersweet anthems “Around the World” and “Will You?”. And Doug Wright’s book works especially well in foreshadowing the ominous events to come in the Beale’s lives.
In all its depressing display, “Grey Gardens” is perhaps best seen as an illuminating and cautionary tale of the pitfalls inherent in familial relationships. Of the difficulty yet absolute necessity of staking one’s own identity, come what may. The work seems to be telling us that, by sublimating one’s own will at the behest of another’s, as Little Edie does for her mother, only tragedy can result.