note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Richard Pacheco
“Eleemosynary” is a 1985 one act play by Lee Blessing (Best known for “A Walk in the Woods”. It follows the relationships between three generations of women at the Downstage Theatre for 2nd Story and it sparkles with fine performances and vibrant energy, full of sass and fun as it investigates the relationships between a grandmother, mother and daughter, fraught with intricacies and peculiarities.. The word "eleemosynary" itself plays a significant part in the plot.
The stage is nearly bare with ramps criss-crossing, some shelves and books, highly evocative along with some large wooden frames for wings a la Da Vinci’s flying machine. Words, not jus their spelling, but their definitions play an important part in this play. They interplay with the relationship between the three women, delving into its complexities and convolutions. The relationships between the three women are subtle and at times contrary and perverse. The grandmother, Dorothea, is a genuine eccentric, a woman disappointed by much of her life until she discovers she can be eccentric and it offers her a saving grace, but one with impact and consequences for her family. Her daughter Artemis (Artie) shirks from her mother’s strong personality and quirky ways. Her mother is dominating and overbearing and she flees from her influence, running away from home as a child multiple times. Artie’s daughter, Echo, is bright, talented and precocious with a love of words, instilled in her by her grandmother to the point of obsession from childhood on. Artie leaves her daughter in her mother’s care, feeling cut of by the bond between the two. As the play begins, Dorothea has suffered a stroke, and while Echo has reestablished contact with her mother, it is only through extended telephone conversations, during which real issues are skirted and their talk is mostly about the precocious Echo’s single-minded domination of a national spelling contest.
Isabel O’Donnell is the eccentric and quirky Dorothea. Dorothea loves learning, loves, if not is downright obsessed about getting children to learn words, both meanings and spelling. Dorothea’s father dashed her dreams of attending college and pushed her into an unwanted marriage. Trapped in that, her mind turns increasingly flighty and cold towards her daughter. O’Donnell is a delight in the role, full of poise, prescience and oozing eccentricity with ease and finesse.
Sharon Carpentier is Artemis, an intelligent woman nearly snuffed by her mother’s oppressiveness and overbearing manner. She latches on to scientific rationalism in self defense. Her mother squeezes her out of her daughter’s life piece by piece and she admits to emotional child abuse and moves to eight different cities to escape her mother and is always ready to move to another one. Carpentier handles the role of the resentful perpetually escaping Artie with skill and energy. It is difficult to evoke compassion for the character, but Carpenier does so ably and admirably.
Valerie Westgate is Echo, the spelling genius who tires to get her mother and grandmother back on better terms and is willing to use her spelling abilities to entice them to the same place at the same time for her spelling bee. She also knows all about derivations and the earliest literary uses of all manner of arcane words. She is precocious to the border of irritating. Echo is bound and determined to somehow bring her grandmother and mother somehow together again no matter what. Westgate is charming in the role, managing to balance exuberance with a smart aleck arrogance that does not get to be overbearing.
Director Mark Peckham keeps the pace rapid and on target. He deftly balances the wants and desires of the three women with a keen eye on pace and their unique relationships.
Words play a key element in this play, words and their ability to alter and control life, to redefine relationships and interactions on so many levels. It offers some dazzling moments for Echo with her spelling and some terrific interplay between the women.