Judith Newmark – stltoday.com, July 12, 2016
Does Debby Lennon give a memorable performance in “Grey Gardens”? Or does she give two of them?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Either way, she’s sensational.
Playing “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale in the first act and her daughter, “Little Edie” Beale, in the second, Lennon delivers two different singing voices, two acting styles and two kinds of crazy. They’re all fascinating.
Based on a true story, “Grey Gardens” traces the supremely dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter. Making its St. Louis debut at Max & Louie, the show was created by playwright Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie; Annamaria Pileggi directs.
The first act, set in the 1940s, finds Big Edie presiding over a Long Island estate. She’s wealthy and aristocratic, a member of a family that will one day include Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwell (her nieces. Here, they are charmingly played as children by Phoebe Desilets and Carter Eiseman.) She’s planning a lavish party where she intends to entertain the guests with song selections. Big Edie fancies herself a diva, and Lennon shows us why this isn’t altogether nuts: Her delivery of the sentimental “Will You?” is haunting.
But she has no judgment. She keeps a gay, in-house pianist (Terry Meddows, in dapper form) whom her husband detests. She also decides to rehearse a dialect number, “Hominy Grits,” in front of her family and the African-American butler (Omega Jones, a model of rectitude).
Her performances embarrass her daughter, Little Edie (Madeline Purches, a beautiful young woman with a silvery voice of her). Little Edie thinks that she and her beau, Joseph Kennedy Jr. (Will Bonfiglio), are going to announce their engagement.
Is Big Edie conscious of her own destructive schemes? Maybe, maybe not. Her grandiose nature has no use for reflection. But by the time Act 1 ends, the lights have come down on the Beales’ whole way of life.
Act 2 picks up in 1973. By this time, Little Edie — that’s Lennon — has returned to live with her mother, after an unsuccessful, possibly disastrous, stint in Manhattan.
If Lennon played the Big Edie as a grande dame, she portrays Little Edie as a brassy, possibly delusional woman, untroubled by even a scintilla of insight. She strides on stage joking with her presumably invisible audience (though we are in fact right there) and singing about her original ensemble, “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.”
Her voice, still impressive, turns harsh; the graceful, extravagant poses of Act 1 turn brusque and mechanical. It doesn’t hurt that designer JC Krajicek does a fine job of capturing Edie’s bizarre style, preserved in a famous documentary that inspired the musical.
The elegant house has devolved into “a 26-room litter box.” Crawling with stray cats and the occasional raccoon, it’s a horror. Big Edie (the sly Donna Weinsting) spends most of her time in her filthy bed, sniping at Little Edie and dreaming of Norman Vincent Peale (hearty Tom Murray, who in Act 1 played Big Edie’s domineering father).
Feeling hungry, she hands Little Edie a plate she has extracted from someplace under the covers — ugh! Even the grungy neighbor boy (Bonfiglio again, showing a lot of range) remarks that it would help a lot if somebody just did some laundry.
Set designer Dunsi Dai has performed a remarkable feat, not unlike Lennon’s: He gives us two sets in a single space, one opulent and one that makes you itch in your theater seat.
Act 1 has a linear plot, Little Edie’s romance. Act 2 is circular, like the lives of the two trapped women. Near the end, in the lovely “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” Korie employs the cycle of the year to trace the pattern of two sad, self-destructive lives.
Thirty years earlier, the Edies couldn’t have imagined that they would live this way. Maybe most of us can say something like that. But it’s a pity to see it involve so much regret.