In decidedly post-Camelot 1975, the documentary Grey Gardens revealed that Jackie Kennedy’s cousins Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier, once members of society’s crème, were living in a squalid, cat-and-flea-infested manse in East Hampton, New York. Also, they were likely clinically delusional, a real-life mother-daughter pair of Miss Havishams. The 2006 musical of this queer artifact gained fame for existing at all, let alone on commercial Broadway. Christine Ebersole justly copped a Tony for her uncanny work as both turban-headed freak show “Little Edie” and the same character’s doyenne mother in the show’s fictional No, No, Nanette–sounding first act, which imagines the Beales’ catered 1941 world. But the musical itself was difficult to love; it seemed stuntlike, crafted out of defiance to the idea that such an adaptation was impossible rather than a story’s need to sing. But even those (like me) who were left cold by it admired what the box-office success of this esoteric experiment said about the health of live theater.
I feel the same way about Northlight’s Chicago premiere. Skokie’s largest theater sometimes coasts on cynically subscriber-friendly music revues and boulevard comedies. But the figurinelike delicacy and flushed alertness of Jones’s Gardens casts such a soft light on the material that it flatters the pathetic Beales even when the ambient musical itself doesn’t care to. If you’ve seen the curious film, Whitney’s pitch-perfect work as bedridden, moth-eaten “Big Edie” will induce a double-take. Meanwhile, cunning George Keating’s quietly gin-soaked, piano-playing “confirmed bachelor” is a sly nod to the men who made the film a cult icon. But this is the leading lady’s evening. No Chicago actor this year has been asked to do more than Resnik is here, and her performance—gentler than Ebersole’s ferocious creation but no less technically precise—is like watching an actor play an exquisite Cherry Orchard, smoke a quick cigarette and come back to sing a flawless Mama Rose. I’ll never swoon for Grey Gardens, but I love what it demands of an artist this gifted.