Posted by Nathalie Weinstein
Tears in the cat food cans at Grey Gardens
Sweater headdresses were plentiful at the opening night of Portland Center Stage's production of Grey Gardens, a musical about the fate of socialites Edith Ewing Beale and her adult daughter Little Eddie, the eccentric relatives of the late Jackie Kennedy Onassis. As the play progresses, the audience watches as the mother and daughter transform from America's royalty, to a reclusive life rummaging through discarded cat food cans in their decaying 28-room mansion.
After a prologue that breaks down the family history, the lights open on the mansion as it was in its heyday during the 1940s, all fine china, pianos and the brooding portrait of Phelan Beale, who paid for it all. The set utilizes a giant turntable that takes the mansion from its former glory to its eventual squalor between acts. Big Eddie, played to perfection by Rebecca Eichenberger, is hosting an engagement party for her daughter Little Edie, played by the enchanting Janine DiVita. DiVita is simultaneously innocent and vampish, with a voice that will rip your heart out of your chest.
At once it is evident that all is not right in the house of Beale. Eichenberger is both hilarious and deeply sad as she sings her opera standards, to the delight of her accompanist George “Gould” Strong (music director Rick Lewis providing the snark) and the horror of her daughter Eddie. Kudos, also, to the entire cast for pulling off an Eastern accent without sounding like the Jersey Guy sketch from Saturday Night Live.
I thought going into the show that the music would be off putting, too much eccentricity on top of an already eccentric story. But it works. The nearly constant cabaret-style singing is an entertaining and harrowing reminder of the failed dreams of both women, as well as historically accurate. In the documentary, song is a daily ritual for the reclusive women.
The platform spins and the second act begins with Eichenberger now in the role of an older Little Edie, and the now bed-ridden Big Edie played by Dale Soules. Thousands of donated cat food cans litter the stage and the portrait of Phelan lays discarded amidst the rubble, indicating that the women rule the roost now.
What impressed me most about the show was that it managed to make these larger-than-life women accessible. It would be easy to write the women off as old cat ladies, something to be laughed at. Not that Eichenberger and Soules don't give us some well deserved guffaws, with their constant preening, biting dialogue, grandiose duets and of course, avant garde fashion choices. Props to Soules for that nightgown and those heaving bosoms, showing that even descending into old age (and madness) a woman can still find herself sexy.
But as funny as Eichenberger is as Little Edie in her sweater headdress, her frustration and despair is also palpable as she stalks back and forth across the stage, planning her return to society and fretting over her appearance. When Soules sings a song about corn to her remaining gentleman caller Joe (Ryan Jesse), a stoner high school kid, the lyrics had me smiling, but her earnestness made me a little misty too.
Grey Gardens runs Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through June 21 at the Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Avenue, in Portland. Tickets can be purchased online at http://tickets.pcs.org.
Nathalie Weinstein is an editorial assistant at a local paper as well as an event promoter for Back Fence PDX and a lover of Portland arts and social media. Her work can be found in the Daily Journal of Commerce and right here at PDX Pipeline. Keep up with her on Twitter by following storymakerupper.