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Photograph by Mark Kitaoka
FAMILY CIRCUS: Mother (Dale Soules, left) and daughter (Beth Glover) turn 'Grey Gardens' into a free-fire zone.

Mamma Miasma

The Beales—mother and daughter—go at it in TheatreWorks' 'Grey Gardens'

By Marianne Messina

IN TheatreWorks' new musical production, Grey Gardens, middle-aged "Little" Edie Beale (Beth Glover) wonders, How did I get here from there? In Act 2, when we see the former debutante along with her aging singer mother, Edith Bouvier Beale (Dale Soules), they are ghostly evocative of the original mother-and-daughter spinsters in the Maysles brothers' eponymous 1975 documentary. For feeling stuck in the home known as Grey Gardens, Edie blames her mother; Mother responds that Edie couldn't handle the outside world. Edie delivers her insults as drones; Edith, as chirpy discoveries.

The actors' taut performances create a riveting chemistry as the Ediths talk past each other or verbally trample each other. They also leave the audience in a constant seesaw between seeing eccentricity and feeling empathy. In that priceless supermodel gait gone dowdy, Glover plays the hell out of the Edie role, a woman who annotates herself in streams of chatter but then appears to drop out of existence at a withering word from Mother. Soules' Edith is especially brilliant in the number "Jerry Likes My Corn."

To this reality-based second act, playwright Doug Wright (at the suggestion of composer Scott Frankel) added an extrapolated Act 1, set in the 1940s, when the elder Edith's father (Paul Myrvold) as well as her pianist/consort (Michael Winther) were living in the mansion. As lovely young Edie (Elisa Van Duyne) prepares to meet party guests and the parents of her hopeful fiancÚ, Joseph Kennedy Jr. (Nicholas Galbraith), we see subtle mother-daughter tensions, like the way Edie's attempt to "have her own day" soon becomes a source of regret. In Act 1, the stark conflicts of Act 2 play out in a disconnect between lyrics and music or between music and Duyne/Edie's facial expressions.

Unfortunately, it's hard to appreciate this without some foreknowledge of Act 2. In addition, this act gives us little intimation of Edie's later sarcasm or the later power of Edith's criticism to short-circuit her daughter's sense of self. Instead, it beefs up what the older women remember as halcyon years with full orchestral treatments (harps, big strings, muted trumpets) and the dancing pulse of '40s swing. But Frankel has buried attention-grabbing complexities in his orchestral harmonies, and the bright house orchestra, under conductor William Liberatore, projects it all in great detail.

The production (directed by Kent Nicholson) is exquisite. Edie's youth is bathed in peachy lighting (Pamila Gray, lighting design) and dressed likewise in pale colors and fluid materials—compared to older Edie's costume of revolution red (Cathleen Edwards, costume designer). For the early period, Nicholson and scenic designer J.B. Wilson give the warm home powder-blue walls, stenciled in white vines. The home's muted elegance is overshadowed by the earthy brown presence of wood, from banisters to walnut baby grand piano. In this production, the story of Edie and Edith is traced in the wood, organic and natural as the aging process. The mansion's Act 2 shingles are faded and half-fallen shutters show missing slats. Even the spindled headboards of the women's side-by-side beds are aged wood. Also outstanding are Kathryn Foley's grace as teenaged Jackie Bouvier (the later Jackie Kennedy) and Carolyn Di Loreto's luster as Jackie's younger sister Lee. This production is faithful to Edie's sensibilities in creating neither tragic nor traditional relationships, in not overemphasizing "quirky" or being musical-theater pat. Rather, like Edie's own assessment of the documentary about her, it provides a tender "breakthrough to something beautiful and precious called life."

GREY GARDENS, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday–Wednesday at 7:30pm, Thursday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through Sept. 14 at the Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $26–$64. (650.903.6000)

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