A tale of two women

Grey Gardens, the last production for the Portland Center Stage this season, is a wonderful, comical musical of decadence and desolation.

Grey Gardens, the last production for the Portland Center Stage this season, is a wonderful, comical musical of decadence and desolation.

The story is set in a time when women were still told by their wealthy grandfathers to “marry well” and there was nothing queer about sing-alongs around the piano. It was a time when scandalous royalty where well-to-do families in the Hampton’s and the soon-to-be heirs to the White House, John and Jackie.

But what Grey Gardens can be summed up as is the rise and fall of two women. It’s a before-and-after story in two acts. The first act is a light-hearted look into the lives of the glamorous Beale family, the kind of well-off family one would see on the cover of House & Garden magazine. They are the type of family in which everybody is surprisingly busy, but nobody has to work for a living, and the head of the household is nowhere to be seen. The second act unravels into a back and forth between mother and daughter in an isolated and sullied version of their former lives.

In the first act the Beale family’s attention is set on the engagement of Little Edie Bouvier Beale to a Kennedy and the hijinks of a doting mother wanting to make the engagement party a little more fun with her renditions of Puccini. Things do not end well with the two young lovers and they part ways, with Little Edie leaving Grey Gardens and the suffocating presence of her mother.

The second act is a heartbreaking but hilarious look at what happens when this part of American royalty just stops giving a damn. Without funds to clean up Grey Gardens, Big Edie and Little Edie, returning from the city because of mental health issues, decide that living in squalor can be just a comfortable as living in lavish surroundings.

The musical numbers in the second act are showy, with supporting characters coming out of the woodwork as choir members or military officers to accompany fantasies of the two women. Little Edie, even in middle age, still dreams of a day when her greatness and freedom won’t be shadowed by the omniscience of Big Edie’s screeching.

Much of the play’s success hinges on the amazing work of Rebecca Eichenberger, who plays Big Edie (also known as Mother Darling) in the first act, and Little Edie 32 years later in the second. Her voice is captivating whether it’s in grandiose form as “Mother Darling,” accompanied by her pianist Gould (played by Rick Lewis) or as Little Edie in despair, lamenting how far she has fallen from elegance and a normal life.

While the entire supporting cast performs well beyond expectation, another standout beside Eichenberger is Evan Thompson, who plays the grumpy grandfather, Major Bouvier. My guest for the evening summed up his performance nicely, saying, “The man can do no wrong.”

The set design, especially for the second act, deserves some credit as well. The floor is lined with cat food tins, hundreds of them (they were all donated by helpful patrons and cat-lovers) to make the grisliness of Grey Gardens in its gloom that much more realistic.

Overall, Grey Gardens is the best production from the Portland Center Stage this season.