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‘Grey Gardens’ Depicts Privilege in Peril

In the 1930s and ’40s, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale — the aunt and cousin of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, respectively — were in the upper echelon of New York’s social scene. Both mother and daughter had dreams of achieving fame; Ewing Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) pursued a singing career and Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”) was a model and aspiring actress. While neither ever reached celebrity, both enjoyed a wealthy and privileged lifestyle — until they didn’t.

By the 1970s, both women were destitute and isolated, living in a filthy, dilapidated mansion known as Grey Gardens in East Hampton, New York. Their reclusive lifestyle was the subject of a 1975 documentary from brothers David and Albert Maysles, aptly titled Grey Gardens.

Nancy Sam (foreground) as Little Edie (Photo by Debbi Ballard) 

The documentary inspired a full-length musical and HBO television film that aired in 2009, and the Beales’ compelling story will be presented on stage at Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts, Feb. 1-10.

Act I is grounded mostly in fiction, as audiences will see an imagined portrayal of what the mother-daughter duo’s life might have been like during their earlier social heyday. Act II, however, is based on the factual history depicted in the documentary.

“You go from the opulence of high society to abject poverty and squalor, and then you get to watch the dysfunction in this mother-daughter relationship, this co-dependency,” says director Billy Ensley.

Nancy Sam, who plays Big Edie in Act I and Little Edie in Act II, and Paula Baldwin, who plays Big Edie in Act II, both studied the documentary, using it as a unique window into their respective roles.

“I actually watched it once just as an overview, and then I said, ‘Well, as an actor, I’m going to go back and watch specific scenes that are in the musical as a character study,’” Baldwin says. “Because it’s a rare occasion to be able to observe the actual person. Because this character is not fictional; it’s a person. But when I went back to go watch certain sections, I found myself watching the entire thing again.”

“It’s kind of nice in a way, because you actually have something to model and mimic,” Sam adds. “But at the same time, it’s almost more pressure … because you can’t really be free of the character. You really kind of have to stick with how the character is in the documentary, because people are kind of expecting to see that.”

Underneath the more shocking elements that once made the Beales’ life at Grey Gardens the subject of tabloid fodder — the Kennedy family connection, the spectacle of a decrepit estate, the tale of a fall from grace — the musical is ultimately an examination of a complex mother-daughter relationship.

The inherent tension between the two is evident from the start, but it manifests itself even more in the second act, Sam says.

“You can just really kind of see in Little Edie just how much she’s been beaten up over the years by her mom. You really just feel awful for her,” Sam says. “She just has very little self-confidence, and it’s almost like she’s stuck there. Her mom has just kind of almost kept her, and she feels obligated, I think, to stay with her mom and take care of her because her mom will make her feel guilty if she does otherwise. So it’s really just a sad relationship between the two.”

Paula Baldwin as Big Edie (Photo by Debbi Ballard)

Baldwin tries to view things differently, through the eyes of Big Edie.

“Little Edie claims that Mom made her come home and has kind of kept her there out of guilt and responsibility or whatever,” she says. “And my character has kind of a different take on it, that Little Edie was really having a lot of problems out on her own and she really needed to come home. She was not able to function on her own. She needed to be with her mom. So they have different versions of why they’re both where they are.”

Although the pair’s loneliness and isolation is a dominant focus of Grey Gardens, their situation was also a bit absurd, which allows for moments of humor in the production.

“As an actor, you just have to always play it from the truth, and the comedy comes from the truth,” Baldwin says. “The whole thing is that my character’s not trying to be funny. She’s just being herself, but she’s so unique. And she sings about things that people just go, ‘Oh my God, that’s a song?’ But she’s so serious about it. It’s not like she’s trying to be funny.”

“A lot of it comes from the fact that they were such very colorful characters,” Ensley says. “Both of these women in real life were extremely interesting, eccentric — some people might say a little crazy. But that helps a great deal in the element of humor.”

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