Early on, there were many signs that Edith Bouvier Beale was a little different. Growing up in the East Hamptons in the 1920s, Beale wrote emotional poetry from a young age. She took two years off from grade school and during that time watched nothing but movies with her mother. And then there was the time, just after becoming a debutante, that she dove into a pool, lost her swimsuit, emerged nude, and, without batting an eye, asked a handsome boy for his towel. Once known as “Body Beautiful Beale,” fans of the cult classic Grey Gardens may be more familiar with her later-in-life nickname — Little Edie. In 2009 Grey Gardens was turned into an HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore, and in 2006 a musical adaptation hit Broadway. It’s that last iteration that Village Repertory Theatre debuts this week.
Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles are the men responsible for unleashing Little Edie and her mother Big Edie — the eccentric cousin and aunt, respectively — upon the world. Once Hamptons royalty, by the time the cameras uncovered them in 1975, the Beales were penniless and living in a decrepit, raccoon-filled manse called Grey Gardens eating pet food and spiraling into madness. If you’ve seen the film, you know that’s no exaggeration. Which is likely why Grey Gardens captivated so many movie-goers’ imaginations.
“They were misunderstood. They were stifled. There was some delusion happening,” says actress Becca Anderson. In Village Rep’s production, Anderson plays Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in the second and after spending the last few months researching the characters, she says she thinks she understands what made the two women hole up in a rotting home. “Some people, when your dreams shift, sometimes you change and sometimes people can’t,” she says. “Maybe with some medication in 2015, it would have been different.”
But the Beales didn’t live in 2015. Rather, when Big Edie (Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale) was in her 30s, her Wall Street husband Phelen Beale Jr. left her. Little Edie received child support, but Big Edie was left with nothing but the house. By the time Little Edie had gone off to New York City to become a star (she modeled and hoped to become an actress), Big Edie was barely getting by. She summoned her daughter to return home, causing Little Edie to give up her dreams of stardom and begin a love/hate relationship with her mother. The two wouldn’t leave their Hamptons home again until Big Edie’s death some 25 years later.
Great fodder for a musical? Sure, Anderson says. “In the first act it’s your typical Broadway musical,” she says, “but the second act you get the dark and the drama.” Grey Gardens‘ fictionalizes Act I which shows life before the documentary, while Act II is based on the film, reworking moments such as when Little Edie comes out of the house wearing what she calls her “Revolutionary outfit” — a scarf tied around her head and some sort of jacket safety pinned around her waist. In her unmistakable Kennedy-esque accent, Edie declares “This is the best thing to wear for today, you understand. Because I don’t like women in skirts and the best thing is to wear is pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt, I think. You can always take off the skirt and use it as a cape.” In keeping with the film, in the opening scene of Act II of the musical Little Edie enters and sings “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” with some of the film’s exact verbiage mixed into the lyrics. And it’s hilarious. Christine Ebersoles, who debuted the role on Broadway, won the Tony Award for her performance.
But Anderson is quick to point out that Grey Gardens doesn’t make light of the womens’ real mental health struggles.
“Little Edie’s father couldn’t deal with her and he snapped her confidence,” explains Anderson. Phelen disapproved of his daughter’s choice to be an actress and the trauma of his rejection manifested in a physical way. Little Edie lost her hair. Then, after moving back into Grey Gardens, she climbed a tree and lit her remaining locks on fire.
“I have long hair and have always had long hair. It’s my security blanket,” says Anderson. “I can’t imagine what kind of mental place she had to be in to cause her to develop alopecia.”
Diving into that complex head space has required Anderson to allow herself to be completely emotionally available. “It’s giving yourself permission to go there,” she says. “I have to find what those feelings are and to put myself there. I have a mother. I love her dearly. But we fight for sure. You’re always cruelest to those you love most.” But just as Little Edie and Big Edie dress in bizarre clothes, sing old show tunes, and squabble, Grey Gardens reveals that it’s the people you love the most who give you permission to express yourself.