Play shows true story of tumult in aristocratic life

Story by Janelle Gergen

Broadway musical Grey Gardens will open in Kjer Theatre tonight at 7:30 p.m. The play focuses on the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, aunt and cousin of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

“This isn’t a fictitious story,” said professor of dance Toni Poll-Sorensen, who plays Edith in the second act. “This is a real, true story about two women who actually existed. And their story is an incredible story.”

The play is based on a 1975 documentary on the lives of Edith and Edie, well-known names in 1940s U.S. By the 1970s, however, they had come to be known as eccentric recluses and almost lost their home due to health-code violations. Grey Gardens shows both parts of their lives, with the first act set in the early glory days, while the second turns to the difficult years at the end of their lives.

“I just think that the women are so fascinating,” said senior Charlene Lucht, who plays Edie. “I think I’ve watched the documentary 20 times, and I can always find something new.”

The first act of the show, which lays out the background for the second act, is a beautiful history, Poll-Sorensen said.

“I mean, who wouldn’t want to live like that?” she said. “They have all the money in the world, they were part of the American aristocracy, they didn’t particularly have to work for a living, they just sort of had parties all the time, and somebody footed the bill for them, and I mean – what a life!”

In many ways, she said, the comparison between the women’s lives in the two acts of the play is relatable to even those who didn’t experience the exciting life that Edith and Edie were a part of.

“That was a very gay and exciting and fun-loving time for them, as our youth is for almost all of us, I think,” she said. “Most of us, even if we don’t come from affluence, can look back on our childhood and say, ‘Well, that was fun.'”

By the second act of the play, as circumstances have changed, so have the characters’ outlooks on life. The Edith of the second half is an incredibly interesting character, Poll-Sorensen said.

“She’s angry, she’s bitter, she’s sweet, she’s a hag, (and) she’s also very charming, still,” she said. “The beauty she had in act one is still there. It’s not external to her anymore, but it’s internal to her.”

Poll-Sorensen likes playing Edith because she reminds her of her grandmothers, she said.

“There’s a sensitivity to being able to rely on the knowledge of my grandmothers to play this role. And there’s also a bit of the crazier side of me, here, which is fun.”

Lucht enjoys her role as Edie, as well, because of the character’s originality.

“She’s just this wildly, kind of eccentric character,” she said. “. She seems really off the wall at first, but I think the more you kind of delve into the layers of the character . she’s really kind of relatable to me.”

She also feels a connection to Edie’s circumstances and the way she feels like she can’t get out of the situation she’s in.

“She feels almost trapped in this house,” she said, “and she blames her mother a lot for that, I think.”

What’s interesting about that, she added, is that “people forget that Edie could have left.” She stayed, ultimately, because she chose to, and that’s important.

“Basically, it’s a love story between these two women and how they care about each other so much,” Lucht said. “They’ve kind of isolated themselves from the rest of the world and kind of created their own reality.”

Both Lucht and Poll-Sorensen agreed that the musical aspect of Grey Gardens is a fun part of the play. Lucht heard the score first in a class, she said, and she “just absolutely fell in love with the music.”

“The music is really, really fun,” Poll-Sorensen said. “. It seems odd that you can make a musical about two people who are so dysfunctional, and yet functional, in their own realities at the end of their lives. And yet, it’s poignant.”

Poll-Sorensen gives a lot of credit to the production crew for all the work that went into preparing for the performances.

“It really is a huge collaboration,” she said, “and you know, the audience sees an ensemble of people perform and people within that who are called leads in the show, but so much goes on backstage that nobody ever sees, and my appreciation really goes there.”

Grey Gardens will run from Feb. 25 to 27 and Mar. 3 to 6 at 7:30 p.m., and there will also be a matinee on Feb. 28 at 1:30 p.m.

Poll-Sorensen and Lucht both think the play is fun to perform, and audience members will love it.

“I think the characters are just really loveable, really likeable,” Lucht said, “and I think that people will really enjoy it; I really do.”