In six hours, an ecstatic audience will give a standing ovation to Broadway star Christine Ebersole for her dual roles in the critically acclaimed musical Grey Gardens. But for now, Maplewood’s award-winning actress is inside a room only a little bigger than an elevator.
“Welcome to my New York City apartment,” Ebersole says with a laugh as she puts on makeup in her teeny dressing room. “This is my home away from home.”
Nestled backstage in the Walter Kerr Theatre, the room has been Ebersole’s retreat since Grey Gardens moved to Broadway last fall following its sold-out run at Playwrights Horizons. It was during that Off-Broadway stint that Ebersole earned critical acclaim for her performance as Edith Bouvier Beale (in the first act) and Edith’s daughter, Little Edie (in the second). The industry took note, rewarding her with its prestigious Obie award, a Drama Desk award, an Outer Critics Circle award, and a Drama League award.
The hallway and staircase immediately outside Ebersole’s dressing room are already abuzz with costume handlers and lighting technicians preparing for the evening performance.
A different buzz is in the air as well: The Walter Kerr Theatre, built in 1921, has been home to six Tony award–winning productions, including Proof, Angels in America, and Doubt. Grey Gardens just may become the seventh when the industry’s most coveted awards are presented on June 10 at Radio City Music Hall (televised on CBS at 8 pm Eastern Time). And the name most often mentioned as deserving best actress, by virtually every critic, blog, website, and fellow actor, is Christine Ebersole.
Settling back in her chair, the actress is clearly comfortable in this space she decorated herself. “Every object in here is strategically placed to keep me calm before the storm of going onstage,” Ebersole says. “Except for that noisy air conditioner in the window.”
The space is actually two rooms decorated with spiritual objects, long velvet curtains, and a daybed. Statues of Jesus, Buddha, baby Krishna, and the Virgin Mary mingle with pictures of friends and family. There’s a mezuzah, a ritual object affixed to the door post in Jewish homes, in the entrance. Ebersole points out various items and offers anecdotes. She gestures toward a photo on a shelf above her dressing table, of Capt. William Burke Jr., a New York City fireman killed on 9/11. Ebersole sang at his memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, an experience she calls “deeply humbling.”
The picture above her dressing table, Ebersole says, is a photograph of Hookey O’Meara, the father of her childhood friend Siobhan, who lived next door to her growing up in Winnetka, Illinois. She says O’Meara, the father of eight children, treated Ebersole like another daughter.
“He was a religious man and was always willing to share his spiritual side with me,” Ebersole says. “He prayed with a rosary, and I’d watch him with the eyes of a child. I still look to him for guidance, and I feel the same way about Little Edie. She’s had a profound effect on my life, not only as an actor but also as a human being.”
Ebersole’s dressing room is a sanctuary. Here, she transforms herself, every day of the week except Monday, into her Grey Gardens characters, who were an aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
The first act of the play, which is based on a true story, takes place in 1941. Edith Bouvier Beale (Ebersole) and her family are preparing for a party at their 28-room Long Island mansion. In song after song they celebrate the engagement of Little Edie to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., the brother of Jack, Bobby, and Teddy. The engagement, however, is short-lived—and an omen of things to come.
When the curtain rises on the second act, it is 30 years later. Big Edie (now played by Mary Louise Wilson) and Ebersole’s Little Edie are living in squalor and isolation at the garbage-strewn mansion with more than 50 cats. Their clothes are in tatters—Little Edie wears a sweater as a skirt and a skirt wrapped tighter than a tourniquet around her head—as the house crumbles around them. On more than one occasion they appropriate “pâté” from their feline friends. Yet as the town tries to have the property condemned, the women remain defiantly oblivious.
“They can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday and all that kind of stuff,” Little Edie proclaims while sauntering across the stage in her ripped nylons. And the audience roars with knowing laughter.
After leaving the theater, Ebersole is driven to her home in Maplewood. It’s late, and her three children, Elijah, 13, Mae Mae, 10, and Aron, 9, are asleep. Her husband of nineteen years, Bill Moloney, a real estate agent, is there to greet her and help her transition back to the world she loves most, her family. The couple met in Los Angeles, where Moloney was a studio musician. His career was cut short after he developed acoustic neuroma, the treatments for which affected his hand-eye coordination.
“Bill helps me keep everything in perspective,” Ebersole says. “This musical is the most emotionally taxing and exhilarating work I’ve ever done. When I get to Maplewood and see Bill, I’m just so thankful to be home.”
And what an eclectic home it is. Ebersole is a discerning scavenger. She finds unique artifacts that have been kicked to the curb or exiled to junk shops and gives them a second life.
A photo of Martin Luther King Jr. welcomes visitors to the foyer. A half-dozen foot-high Hawaiian hula dancers sit atop an antique hutch. The dining room chandelier is adorned with Christmas decorations throughout the year. A statue of the Madonna looks out from its perch on the couple’s fireplace mantel.
“Years ago when we were living in Los Angeles, Christine spotted these four-foot statues of the Virgin Mary that were in the trash,” Moloney says. “I told her I was drawing the line; they were too big for us to take. She’s never let me forget leaving them behind, so now I welcome all these wayward souls into our home.”
These days, Ebersole loves to drive through Maplewood the night before the biannual “junk” pickup. A few years ago, when she was performing in Mame at the Paper Mill Playhouse, she found a small statue of the Madonna and child lying on top of a cardboard box on a Maplewood curb and took it home.
Each morning, the house is filled with what Ebersole likes to call “joyous chaos. There are kids to get off to school. There are pets galore—three cats, three dogs, a guinea pig, and a fish—that need to be fed. There are stories to share. There is always laughter and lots of hugs,” Ebersole says, smiling.
While there is no place in this scene for a Broadway diva, Ebersole confides that Little Edie is never far from her thoughts. “Hopefully, by telling her story, in some small way I am honoring her name,” Ebersole says. “Both of our dreams—mine and Little Edie’s—are being realized every night onstage. Mine through her, and her dreams through me. Little Edie isn’t sorry for her life.”
It’s a weekday afternoon, and suddenly Ebersole’s son Aron races through the front door and leaps into her arms. “Mommy, you’re home!”
“I just wish Little Edie could have gotten a hug like this,” Ebersole says as she wraps her arms tightly around her son.