I spent Saturday in “Grey Gardens.” I admit I have been a great fan of the show, which earned nine Tony Award nominations in 2007 and won three, since seeing one number on the televised awards show. iTunes delivered the cast CD and I was hooked. When the show was announced on the Northlight 2008-09 season, I knew I had to see the entire production. The fact that three Wagon Wheel alums — Ann Whitney, George Keating and Doug Peck — were involved as well as Chicago leading lady Hollis Resnick, sealed the deal, in spite of the fact that the Northlight is in Skokie, Ill., and the production time was November/December. So, in spite of less than favorable reports from the Weather Channel, I headed out Saturday morning having decided, as my grandmother used to say, to “Go to the first (matinee) and stay for the second (evening).” I could not have made a better decision. (I had no problem, except the bitter cold.) I should have gone sooner. I regret that, even with its extended run, “Grey Gardens” will be on stage at the Northlight only through next Sunday. Anyone who loves excellent theater should make the trip! The 2006 musical based on the documentary about Jackie Kennedy Onasis’ aunt, Edith Bouvier Beale, and her cousin, Edith (“Little Edie”) Beale, opened Off-Broadway in 2006 and, thanks to strong audience and press reaction, moved “uptown” for a brief run.
The plot is more Dickens than Burnett and, if the documentary was not readily available (a brief clip is looped in the lobby), it would definitely seem more fiction than fact. But there it is. The first act resembles a light-hearted musical of the 1940s. In their 28-room mansion in East Hampton, Edith Beale (Resnick) and daughter Edie (Tempe Thomas) are in last minute preparations for Little Edie’s engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (Patrick Sarb). At the piano is George Gould Strong (Keating), Edith’s gay live-in accompanist. Pre-teen nieces Jackie (Grace Etzkorn) and Lee (Arielle Dayan) Bouvier interrupt the rehearsal. Edith’s father, Major Bouvier (Dennis Kelly), instructs the girls (including Edie) on the importance of marrying well and demands Edith not disrupt the proceedings by performing. The last is echoed strongly by Edie and their ambiguous relationship is clear. As they wait for Mr. Beale’s arrival on the 5:15 p.m. train from his Wall Street office, feelings escalate, tensions rise and facts — truth or fiction? — emerge. The result is shattering. End Act I, set in 1941. Begin Act II, set in 1973, still in Grey Gardens, now falling into ruin, where Edith and Little Edie live with more than 50 stray cats and some rabid racoons in an environment condemned by the board of health. Edie (now played by Resnick) and Edith (Whitney) are alone, excepting visits from 17-year-old Jerry (Sarb), whom Edith adores and Edie resents. Both live in their own versions of the past, unable ever to break the neurotic ties that bind. The entire cast (including Sean Blake who plays the Beale butler and his grandson) is outstanding, especially Resnick, who navigates the incredibly emotional waters from mother to daughter with a clear, solid voice that responds to all the demands of the role. She breaks your heart with “Will You” and the wrenching finale “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” earns shocked laughter describing “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” and there is no mistaking Edie’s skewed emotions. Without a doubt, Resnick, winner of 9 Jeff Awards, still is unquestionably Chicago’s No. 1 diva. Right with her is Chicago’s No. 1 character woman. Whitney, who handles two solos and the finale duo very well, is the stubborn, clinging, demanding, senile old woman we all hope we will never become. The duo’s interdependence is palpable and shattering to watch. The rest of the cast plays right up to their level, especially Thomas, Kelly and Keating (who has one of my favorite songs “Drift Away” delivered in a lyrical baritone that proves he sings better than ever). The principals serve as an ensemble in Act II, describing the moulding mansion from “a cat’s eye view” and giving gospel a good go in “Choose to Be Happy.” Peck makes the six member orchestra sound like at least three times as many. You probably won’t hum too many of the songs, which primarily move the plot or expose character, right away. Get the CD. You won’t be able to get the music out of your head. Again, I know it’s short notice, but “Grey Gardens” is more than worth the trip. It’s closer than Indy. Check it out on the Northlight Theatre website.