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Infamous documentary ‘Grey Gardens’ translates to musical at ACT

Patti Cohenour as 1970s "Little Edie" Beale and Suzy Hunt as 1970s "Big Edie" Beale in Act 2 of Grey Gardens, the third show in collaboration between The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT - A Contemporary Theatre. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

Two eccentric women, mother and daughter recluses, living in squalor were the unlikely subjects for a landmark documentary, let alone a hit Broadway musical.

And yet, that’s what happened. And now that musical will opened Thursday at Seattle’s ACT Theatre.

Edith Beale was in her late 70’s and her adult daughter, also named Edith Beale, was in her 50’s when a documentary filmmaker convinced them to let him film their lives together in 1975.

Big Edie and Little Edie had lived together in a 28-room mansion in ritzy East Hampton, New York for over 50 years. The mansion was given the name “Grey Gardens,” as a nod to the nearby dunes and the property’s cement garden wall.

What was once lavish surroundings had over the years deteriorated badly. Having mostly run out of money, the two women had let the house go to pieces – countless cats and raccoons called the place home, the furniture was infested with fleas, the water had been cut off, and the home was full of garbage and general decay. When the media found out there were related to Jackie Kennedy, the story went – as they would put it these days – viral.

Yet the two women seemed to carry on as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Eccentric does not begin to describe these peculiar but spirited people.

Big Edie used to be a singer and had no qualms warming up her aging voice for the camera.

Little Edie had a most remarkable, what she called a revolutionary, sense of style – wearing sweaters on top of her head, for instance or cinching up her dress in such a way as to show off the top of her pantyhose.

These traits are get translated into musical form on stage.

In a joint production between the 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre, the musical “Grey Gardens” opened Thursday night at ACT. And before it even opens, it’s just been announced the show’s run has been extended into June.

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