The Collective Face Theatre Ensemble has kicked off its new season in grand style with "Grey Gardens," the company's first musical.
If you've seen the famed documentary "Grey Gardens," you already know that the story deals with two commanding but deeply troubled women - a mother and daughter, both named Edith Bouvier Beale - who live in a sprawling, dangerously decaying home on an estate in East Hampton, N.Y.
The musical by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie is based on the iconic 1975 documentary, but the first act explores the lives of Big Edie and Little Edie in 1941, before the mother's marriage has ended and when the daughter still seems destined for a momentous life, possibly even as the wife of a Kennedy in the White House.
But Little Edie's engagement to Joe Kennedy Jr. creepily unravels, while little cousin Jackie - who actually would end up on Pennsylvania Avenue - flits in and out of scenes.
The first act is haunted by the tragic futures that we all know.
Still, the home at Grey Gardens is brimming with life and promise in these early scenes. As Big Edie, Collective Face veteran Maggie Lee Hart gleefully dominates the affairs of the house and the life of her daughter, played with a combination of frivolity and vulnerability by Mary Caitlin McMahon.
"Grey Gardens" is a musical, sure, but under the able direction of David I.L. Poole, the sharp dialogue is as gripping as the songs that reveal the troubled minds of mother and daughter. The work of musical director Warren Heilman and keyboardist Brian Walker complements the generally excellent vocals and sets the mood for the play.
Christopher Blair is captivating as George Gould Strong, the gay pianist who has become a foil and companion for Big Edie, whose absent husband is seen only in a portrait that looms over the action.
Zachary Burke is appropriately dashing as the ambitious young Joe Kennedy, and local stage veteran Mark Rand is virtually unrecognizable - in a good way - as Big Edie's father, who seems poised to cut his daughter off.
Brandon Spaulding plays Brooks, the Grey Gardens servant who has learned how to get along, and young performers Anna Smith and Anna Claire Edenfield are charming as young Bouvier cousins Jackie and Lee, respectively.
Act II is set in 1973, with all the performers from the first act appearing in different roles and in ensemble numbers. In a particularly fine display of versatility, Hart now plays Little Edie, while Mickey Dodge plays Big Edie, the matriarch who is no longer sure if she's eating liver pate or cat food. There are some riveting moments as Hart and Dodge go at each other in reckless dysfunction and codependency.
Burke is now the Marble Faun - the aimless young man who seems the Beales' only true friend.
By the way, the real life Marble Faun, Jerry Torre, resurfaced in 2006 just before the new musical opened. He has had a remarkable life of his own.
"The Beales showed me a life where you could be yourself, explore, take chances," he told The New Yorker. "Who was I to ask them why they chose to live in such filth and squalor?"
I found myself asking a similar question in the second act as the two fiercely independent but largely incompetent women scoffed at the idea of getting help or moving out.
In one especially fine moment, the characters from the first act appear as spectral presences haunting the grim present of the aging mother and daughter.
The musical is based on both fact and fiction, but some lines are straight from the documentary, including one that captures a major theme in the play.
"It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present," says Little Edie as she talks directly to the audience.
The Collective Face's production of "Grey Gardens" continues through Sept. 28 with Friday and Saturday night shows at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. General admission is $20. Tickets are $15 for students, seniors and active duty military.
Reservations are highly recommended and can be made via 912-232-0018. Muse Arts Warehouse is located at 703 Louisville Road, just west of Boundary Street.
Bill Dawers writes City Talk in Savannah Morning News and blogs at Savannah Unplugged (www.billdawers.com). Email email@example.com.