It wasn't until the gorgeous "Another Winter in a Summer Town," sung by Hollis Resnik close to the end of Act 2, that I felt any of the emotional power
was supposed to deliver. Philadelphia Theatre Company's production, directed by Lisa Peterson, of this widely admired musical by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music), and Michael Korie (lyrics), left me mystified. What is all the fuss about?
Not having seen the Broadway production, I could not imagine why this dull show - with its first act, set in 1941, looking and sounding like a rerun of an old movie about high society, and its second act, set in 1973, looking like an expressionistic parody of tragic eccentricity - had rated such praise.
The true story of two women, Edith Bouvier Beale (Hollis Resnik in Act 1, Joy Franz in Act 2) and her daughter, "Little Edie" Beale (Kim Carson in Act 1, Hollis Resnik in Act 2) became the subject of a cult documentary in 1975 and of a new HBO film this year. The appeal of their lives rests, first, on their relation to celebrity: They were aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. And Little Edie imagined herself an item with Joseph Kennedy Jr. who, had he survived World War II, might have become president.
Another aspect of the appeal is their bizarre lives, descending from the wealth and privilege of American aristocracy to existence in a derelict 28-room mansion in East Hampton, filled with rubbish, fleas, 52 cats, and several raccoons.
Still another attraction is the mother-daughter tie that kept them together in that house, growing more and more hermetic and peculiar, for decades. Little Edie says of posh and snooty East Hampton: "It's a mean, nasty . . . town" where "they can get you for wearing red shoes on a Thursday"; she speaks while she is wearing one of her signature getups - pinned, wrapped, ripped, and filthy.
"There's a lot to be said for living alone," Big Edie observes. "You get to be a real individual." And that should be what we feel while watching this show. But there seems to be little individuality in these annoying caricatures, and the cast reveals none of their pain or madness or wild, defiant pride. Most of the singing voices are serviceable rather than beautiful (except for Todd Almond's; his voice is lovely, but as Big Edie's parasitic friend Gould he creates none of the degenerate despair crucial to his character). The women's accents wander from Katharine Hepburn (think "calla lilies") to Tennessee Williams' Amanda (think "jonquils").
Two years ago, David Robson wrote a fine nonmusical play called A Few Small Repairs, based on the same two women, who were portrayed with great courage by Hazel Bowers and Sonja Robson. It lingers vividly in the mind because, unlike this show, it created characters of subtlety and humanness, each of whom was "a real individual."