Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In Search of Our Own Grey Gardens

Last week I attending the opening of Grey Gardens at the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theatre. (The image at left is from the original documentary trailer in 1976.) The show, an interesting take on this crazy mother-daughter duo set to music that somehow combines old '40s-era glamour and Sondheim-inflected quirk ("Jerry doesn't want any sex with you!" sings Big Edie to Little Edie) ticks along without a hitch, as the projection-lit set spins madly from lush Waverly florals and Arcadian landscapes to a dilapidated kitty playground. Kim Carson as young Little Edie, Hollis Resnik as young Big Edie and old Little Edie, and Joy Franz as old Big Edie all nail their roles, playing off each other in true mother-daughter fashion. Resnik in particular elaborates Carson's earlier tics and habits into compulsive and constant motion as Little Edie. Franz's Big Edie turns on a dime from querulous cat lady to nurturing grande dame with the arrival of Jerry, a young pothead who hangs out at Grey Gardens with its aging recluses. And Carson shows us all of Little Edie's potential at the moment of its destruction--"The Girl Who Has Everything" except (thanks to her mother) a wedding ring and a life of her own.

Watching the show, I imagined one could come away with a sense of distance from these ridiculously wealthy women who lost everything, including their ability to function in the world. Instead, I found myself sympathizing with both of these women. They lived in a world of men who measured their worth as adornments--Little Edie's young cousin Jackie Bouvier reminds us throughout the show of the extent to which she perfected this role. How, then, can we wonder at the lengths the Edies would go to, to escape this masculine world? Or at the same time their desperation to be a part of it? And how far have we really come?

For myself, I sympathize with the urge to wrap oneself in the trappings of middle-class comfort: a house, a yard, a car, summer barbecues and winter vacations to warmer climes. I also recognize, having given these things up, that the trappings can be a trap, soothing one with normality and mainstream acceptability while at the same time condemning anything that veers outside the boundaries. I never lived in the Hamptons, where "they get you for wearing red on Thursdays" according to Little Edie, but I have felt the pressure that comes from familial and social expectations. It's not easy to walk away from those expectations without cutting myself off from the people who hold them.

How many of us are trapped in Grey Gardens of our own? Not even necessarily because of our gender, but because we make choices based on social pressures rather than the pressures of our own hearts? And how many of us, in choosing to ignore or flout the mainstream, become mere tangents to the workings of the world around us? For me, the Edies issue a challenge to the rest of us: live authentically, and with passion, in the world. It's a delicate balance. I'm going to try to find it.

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