In 1975, a curious documentary surfaced - with the deceptively bland title Grey Gardens - about a pair of mentally unstable women, Edith Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, Edie “Little Edith”. One of its selling points was undoubtedly the fact that the two were related to Jackie Kennedy. However, the movie had little to do with their famous relatives. Instead, the film was an intimate look into how the women lived – in a dilapidated mansion surrounded by cats, raccoons, and regrets.

What made the movie so fascinating was the fact that it was charming and funny… and deeply, existentially depressing. The women spoke openly in front of the camera, exposing their lives and dirty laundry with seeming ease (this must have been one of the very first “reality shows”). Edith and Edie quickly became underground American icons – symbols of the decline and fall of American royalty.

In 2009, a movie was made of the documentary; while it was well done, I couldn’t get into it. There was too much re-creation of the documentary, and it felt like a waste of time when the actual documentary was so much more authentic. And when the Unicorn announced the play on their season list, I groaned – here was a play based on the documentary - and in true Broadway style, they had turned it into a musical. The idea of the Bouvier Beales singing and dancing through a dilapidated house just seemed kind of sacrilegious, not to mention unnecessary. So I went to the show with somewhat less enthusiasm than some of the other members of the audience.

Well, color me stunned. The Unicorn’s production may be the best show of the season.

This version of the two ladies wisely avoids recreating the documentary. The first act is a classy, snappy illustration of a pivotal event that lurks in the background of the documentary (and the play’s second act) – how young Edie lost her engagement to a young Joseph Kennedy. The second act is much more familiar to those who know the story, but without just being a retread.

My biggest worry – the fact that it is a musical – was completely assuaged. The songs are not merely tacked on to add some superficial smiles to an ultimately tragic story. They are thoughtful and relevant, intrinsic to the story. Whether upbeat or melancholy, they are deliberately poetic illustrations of what the characters are feeling. They are a much more effective vehicle for the characters than monologues could ever be.

The cast is, in a word, spectacular. They all seem to be aware that they are treading on special ground, and give their performances their full attention. Brandon Sollenberger gives a standout supporting performance as both Joseph Kennedy and the young handyman Jerry. Kathleen Warfel is wonderful as the older “Big Edie”, the tough yet fragile matriarch of the rotting house.

But Cathy Barnett was simply a revelation. Playing the young “Big Edie” in the first act, and the old “Little Edie” in the second act, Barnett positively inhabits both roles. I can’t imagine the preparation she went through to get the characters right. And she does get them right. She is heartbreaking in her portrayal of both women and the tragicomic arcs they draw around each other, unable to break free.

The sets are as wonderful as the performance. The Grey Gardens in the first act is represented by a set that is simple, yet luxurious; it is easy to imagine the immense and casual wealth that surrounded the family. The Grey Gardens of the second act, however, is a set that is broken, cluttered, dirty, and yet still reminiscent of the first act – a physical reminder of the breakdown of the two women.

Grey Gardens is funny, melancholy, and tragic. A mixture of hope, love, regret, and sometimes hate, it is a meditation on class issues, mental health, and the consequences of choice. The Unicorn masterfully manages to weave these threads into a mesmerizing show that is absolutely essential viewing for anyone who loves the subject, or even the art of theatre in general.

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