‘Grey Gardens’ a colorful portrait of two fascinating women

Long before “Hoarders” and its ilk surfed the reality programming wave, filmmakers David and Albert Maysles struck gold with a fallen-from-grace pair living in cat-filth squalor despite presidential family connections. Their 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens” inspired both a dramatic 2009 film and a 2006 Off-Broadway-to-Broadway Tony-winner.

The title of all three refers to the East Hampton home of the Beales, nicely realized by set designer Stewart Lyle in the just-opened Custom Made Theatre production.

Big Edie Bouvier Beale and Little Edie Beale are an odd couple. Mother and daughter, besties, frenemies, protectors and enablers, their relationship was forged in a time when women’s roles were still defined by society strictures and the men in their lives or the absence of same. Both had artistic yearnings, delusions some say, and both were damaged goods.

It’s operatic material, but composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and librettist Doug Wright instead crafted a richly dramatic musical that spans two generations and plays the neat hat trick – or perhaps head-scarf trick is more apt – of having one actor play both Edies at different stages of life.

Here the actor is the formidable Heather Orth, who is only 30 but already has proven to be a powerful Bay Area musical theater presence playing the mega mother roles in recent productions of “Gypsy” and “Carrie.”

In Act 1, Orth’s Big Edie is aflutter with plans for an engagement party for daughter Little Edie (the refreshing Juliana Lustenader, who shows off a gorgeous soprano voice). Little Edie’s intended is a Kennedy (Nathan Brown) and everyone’s future happiness seems assured until, of course, it all falls apart due to Big Edie’s inability to cede the spotlight.

It’s all witnessed by the butler (Daniel Solomon), Big Edie’s accompanist/sidekick George Gould Strong (the ivory tickling David Aaron Brown), her disapproving, socially conservative father (an appropriately stuffy Dave Sikula), and youthful Bouvier cousins Lee (Gabriella Jarvie) and Jackie (Nandi Drayton), who would later “marry well” into the names Radziwill, Kennedy and Onassis.

Director Stuart Bousel has Orth nicely careering from mock innocence to crafty manipulation and wounded indignation. It is a well-played counterpoint to Act 2 when, as Little Edie, she has descended into a half-life of fantasy aspirations and false memories.

Perfectly partnered with Orth, Mary Gibboney is ferociously inspired as the now decrepit Big Edie, who serves grifters (Brown again, in the more interestingly played of his two roles) bedside-cooked corn on the cob.

Together, the women turn Act 2 into a heartbreaking contrapuntal aria of shattered dreams and lost opportunities.


Grey Gardens

Presented by Custom Made Theatre Co.

Where: Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; closes June 21

Tickets: $20 to $50

Contact: (415) 798-2682,

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