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Intensely personal in a slightly creepy way: 5th's Grey Gardens

Jessica Skerritt and Patti Cohenour. Photo:
Tracy Martin, courtesy of 5th Avenue Theatre
First time Jessica Skerritt saw the documentary Grey Gardens, it made her a little uncomfortable. "It reminded me of that television show Hoarders," she said. "Intensely personal in a slightly creepy way." After being cast as Little Edie in the musical based on the film, she studied the girl who should have had everything but ended up as a curiosity, famous mostly because of her relationship with Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onnassis. “When I play her,” said Skerritt, “Grey Gardens is the height of its beauty and she’s on the cusp of all things wonderful in her life.”

The musical opens with Little Edie preparing for her engagement party to a handsome young Joseph Kennedy. Later, as recluse in a crumbling mansion, the same role is played with deliberate eccentricity by Patti Cohenour in the Seattle production. Cohenour also plays Big Edie, Little Edie’s mother in the 1940s scenes. During rehearsals, Skerritt set her accent based on what she heard in the documentary, working with a dialect coach to make the East Hampton socialite sound exactly right. “She had a fascinating way of speaking, with a sort of sing-song quality,” Skerritt said.

“The physicality of Little Edie is so specific too,” she noted. “I watch Patti in the second act, to make sure that my interpretation is identifiable as her to the audience.”

One of the things that helps her get into character is the “just gorgeous” costumes designed by Catherine Hunt, whose work has been seen at Seattle Opera, the Rep, Intiman, ACT, and others around Seattle. “Catherine does such a beautiful job of capturing the 1940s glamor versus the 1970s costumes,” Skerritt said.

One thing that that she had to get used to was the very intimacy imposed by production’s staging in the round at ACT. “Everywhere you turn, you see the people in the audience,” she said.
She thinks that closeness works perfectly with this musical, staged jointly by ACT and the 5th Avenue Theatre. “Having the audience so in our space is a special thing. It makes them immersed in Grey Gardens,” she said. “That’s so appropriate, because this piece is so intimate.”

With Grey Gardens’ run now extended in June (“an extra week of pay is always appreciated!”), Skerritt has plenty of time to lure the audience into sharing her fascination with the character of Little Edie.