Gardens of grey may seem like a misnomer, but how apt it was for a dark and unsettling chapter in American high-society history.
A mansion located in affluent East Hampton, N.Y., Grey Gardens in its grand heyday was the home of the Bouvier Beales, the elder Edith ("Big Edie") and her daughter, "Little Edie." Also frequent familiars in this domicile of wealth and privilege were Little Edie's young cousins, Jacqueline and Lee. We would know them later as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Princess Lee Radziwill. The fractious relationship between Edith and Little Edie, poisoned by jealousy and resentment and twisted rivalry, eventually turned the seemingly idyllic household upside down and submerged it into the mire until all that was left were two reclusive, lonely women sharing a roof in utter squalor.
A 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers about the two women—also titled Grey Gardens— became a 2006 musical written by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, with a book by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife). It's a strangely inscrutable exercise in musical theater with auto-wreck undertones: You know the fate of these two women is painful to watch, yet you can't look away.
Ion Theatre Company's new production of Grey Gardens, directed by Kim Strassburger, is that kind of arresting theater. In addition to a gifted cast fronted by Linda Libby (playing mother in Act 1 and daughter in Act 2) and Annie Hinton (as Big Edie in the second act), Grey Gardens enjoys a score that's both amusing in a black-humor way ("The Revolutionary Costume for Today," "Jerry Likes My Corn") and heart-breaking ("The Girl Who Has Everything," "Will You" and "Another Winter in a Summer Town"). Its peripheral characters, too, make the most of every moment on Ion's black-box stage, including Ruff Yeager as the booze-swilling, piano-playing George Gould Strong and Charles Evans, whose slacker-boy Jerry is a highlight of Act 2.
The trappings and doings at the mansion ooze opulence and preciousness in Act 1, in spite of the limitations of the tiny stage, before turning to something out of a pathetic reality show about the fallen rich in Act 2. An unlikely story for a musical? Not here, where the denouement is as harrowing as a tragic opera.
Grey Gardens runs through April 20 at BLK- BOX Theatre in Hillcrest. $20-$33. iontheatre.com
The Odd Couple: A fussy news writer's wife throws him out of the house, so he moves in with a grubby sports writer. Will they kill each other? Opens April 10 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
The Psychic: In this comedy, a struggling writer starts giving psychic readings in order to pay the rent and entangles himself in a murder mystery. Presented by Different Stages, it runs through April 13 at The Swedenborgian Hall in University Heights. differentstages.biz
To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday: A man can't seem to get over the loss of his wife, who accidentally drowned. Now he's talking with her during nighttime beach walks and neglecting his daughter. Through April 13 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. onstageplayhouse.org
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder: In this musical comedy set in Edwardian England, a man in need of treasure to win the love of a woman learns he's a distant heir to a fortune and begins murdering his way to the top of the family food chain. Through April 14 on The Old Globe Theatre's Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
Oleanna: Playwright David Mamet pits a female college student against her male professor in this tense, two-person play, about power and gender politics, that premiered in the wake of the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill hubbub in the early 1990s. Presented by Intrepid Shakespeare Company, it runs through April 14 at San Dieguito Academy Performing Arts Center in Encinitas. intrepidshakespeare.com
Grey Gardens: Musical based on a documentary of the same name about Big Edie and Little Edie—Jackie Kennedy Onassis' aunt and cousin—and their descent from an opulent lifestyle. Presented by Ion Theatre Company, it runs through April 20 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. iontheatre.com
Accomplice San Diego: A different kind of theater happening—part play, part game—courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse's Without Walls program: Audience members arrive in Little Italy and experience the story as they walk through the neighborhood and respond to clues provided to them. Runs through April 21. Find details at lajollaplayhouse.org.
An Inspector Calls: A detective arrives at the home of a wealthy businessman and politician and grills each member of the family about a young woman's death. Through April 21 at Scripps Ranch Theatre. scrippsranchtheatre.org
Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House: Director Kirsten Brandt and translator Anne-Charlotte Hanes Harvey present a new adaptation of the Norwegian playwright's famed feminist work. Through April 21 in The Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: A convict cons his way into a mental institution to avoid prison and tangles with a domineering nurse. Through April 21 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
Assassins: A carnival shooting gallery is the starting point for a musical about nine killers or would-be-killers of U.S. presidents. Presented by Cygnet Theatre, it runs through April 28 at The Old Town Theatre. cygnettheatre.com
The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler: This comedy shows us the fate of Hedda Gabler and other literary figures after we last left them. Through April 28 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. diversionary.org
Damien: In a one-actor production, Robert Smyth reprises his role as a Belgian-priest who ministered to people suffering from leprosy on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Through May 5 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado. lambsplayers.org
References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot: A struggling Gulf War vet returns home to his heartsick wife in the California desert in a play that's alternately real and surreal. Through May 5 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando. moxietheatre.com
Pageant: You pick the winner in a musical comedy about a beauty contest. Through May 12 at the Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net