By Aaron Worley
MATTHEWS – A mother and daughter living in pure disgust, even worse then some hobbits. Fleas, empty cans and possums crawling all over the place, becoming as common to the two women as dust on ceiling fans or on walls.
These are the people and their living conditions depicted in Matthews Playhouse’s newest musical, “Grey Gardens.”
The production covers the living conditions of Edith Ewing Beale and Edith “Little Edie” Beale, two recluses in a wealthy area of East Hampton, N.Y. in the early 1970s. The two women were once upper-class citizens related to Jacqueline Onassis, the widow of President John F. Kennedy.
Inspired by the 1975 documentary of the same name, the musical offers an entertaining and thought-provoking glimpse into their lives. It will also touch up on how they managed to survive on such a small amount of money for two years without basic utilities and an increasingly vagrant living environment.
The role of “Little Edie” will be played by Nancy Sam, a Buffalo, N.Y. native who has been in Charlotte for two years. She has acted in previous productions (not involving Matthews Playhouse), such as “The House at Pooh Corner,” “SHOUT! The Mod Musical” and a production at Lancaster Opera House called, “Fiddler On The Roof.”
Sam’s background allows her to play dynamic characters, a term which accurately describes the Beales. She considers immersing herself into the role as a top priority – almost becoming the character while on stage.
She considers this to be one of her most challenging roles to date, partly due to how eccentric the Beales were.
“When you have a documentary out about these people and it’s real, the audience will be looking for those mannerisms on stage,” Sam said. “It seems easy but it’s actually difficult … you have to be on point.”
Edith Ewing Beale will be played by Paula Baldwin, a theater arts teacher at Independence High School.
Like Sam, Baldwin is no stranger to the stage, having acted in high school and in bigger productions. Her acting credits include “Blanche” in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Mother Superior” in “Sister Act.”
Baldwin has two degrees in theater and performed professionally for about 16 years before accepting a position in North Carolina. This led to her taking a break from acting for a while, but she later returned to the stage because of her ‘addiction’ to theater.
Baldwin also considers this to be one of her most challenging roles. She believes those who watch the documentary will be the most aware of the Beales’ lives and the most critical of the production.
The documentary, directed by Albert Maysles, was made public in 1975 due to the coverage of the Beales’ lives by both the National Enquirer and New York Magazine. These publications heard about the Beales due to failed inspections by the Suffolk County Health Department, which the Beales coined as “raids.”
In the documentary, the Beales were completely open to the camera, showing exactly how their days were and giving people a glimpse into the deteriorating condition of the mansion. Before the film’s release, Jacqueline Onassis and her sister gave the Beales money to rebuild the house, so it would not fail inspections any longer.
The documentary also inspired an award-winning made-for-TV movie in 2009, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange taking the two main roles.
While the story of the Beales is unusual regarding their wealthy family history, it is a point in history that people can observe and appreciate. Notwithstanding, the fact that the mother and daughter ignored their problems to a point where it might cause them physical harm, observers of the film and musical can realize how badly some people can choose to live.
Want to go?
“Grey Gardens” takes place at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1, 2, 8 and 9, as well as 2 p.m. Feb. 3 and 10, at the Matthews Community Center, 100 E. McDowell St., Matthews. Tickets cost $22 for adults and $19 for students and seniors. Call 704-372-1000 for tickets.