If these strange old women had not been Bouviers (as in Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy) would anyone have cared about them? It's impossible to say, but the musical Grey Gardens rests on the upper crust celebrity connection.
The first act takes place in 1941 and focuses on their lives in a mansion in affluent East Hampton, New York, when it was still a clapboard castle of respectability. Edith Bouvier Beale (the vibrant and full-voiced Leslie Castay) reigns over her daughter Edie (Kristin Witterschein) and assorted guests and hangers-on. Edie has ambitions to perform on stage, but her fiancé Joe Kennedy (Alex Martinez-Wallace), brother of JFK, won't have it. The young Jackie Onassis (Shane Fitzpatrick) wanders through these scenes, sometimes in the company of her comically disgruntled grandfather Major Bouvier (Kris Shaw).
Edith Bouvier Beale is "the girl who has everything" as she puts it in her first song. She's waiting for her husband to come home from Manhattan for the engagement celebration. Instead, he sends a telegram of regrets that also serves notice of his intention to sue for divorce. A cloud falls on the gathering, but it doesn't discourage the mother's need to be the center of attention and she plans to sing anyway though it mortifies her daughter. This dynamic of supremacy and submission defines their relationship, even as they age and everything around them crashes to ruin.
In Act 2, the mansion has become an eyesore, neighbors complain to the sanitation department and innumerable cats run amok. We see garbage-strewn decrepitude. Edith and Edie live like bag ladies — except their particular dump was once a pinnacle of glamour and high society.
This wreckage is the famous Grey Gardens, the subject of the 1975 documentary film, an HBO film starring Jessica Lange, and Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie's award-winning Broadway musical, which opened in 2006.
Southern Rep teamed up with Le Petit for this production, which was skillfully directed by Aimée Hayes. Castay plays mother Edith in the first act and Little Edie in the second, while Janet Shea ably steps in as the elder Edith. The actors are effective, but the switch is a bit confusing. The two acts are 32 years apart, and the first one is essentially exposition that explains how we get to the second. I also found the show's 25 songs excessive and not particularly notable, but the performances are top-notch, including the poised, understated Ron Flagge, who doubles as two generations of the family's servant and handyman.
Cecile Case Covert captures the weird glamour with her costumes as does Geoffrey Hall with his scenic design.
Despite the play's faults, there is something fascinating about observing this grotesque underside of a great American dynasty. — Dalt Wonk
Through May 23
8 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun.