2nd Story’s Eleemosynary
This is a play full of intriguing ideas.By Kathie Raleigh, The Call
“Eleemosynary,” the thoughtful play now in 2nd Story Theatre’s DownStage venue, is short, only about 70 minutes long. But in that brief encounter, we get to know three unusual women from different generations: a mother, a daughter and a granddaughter.
This is a character study in triplicate, and while none of these women is like me or anyone I know, exactly, I can find bits of them in any of us. In that examination, moreover, playwright Lee Blessing touches on broad issues, like how we make our way through life, how we behave as parents, and how we become who we are because of/in spite of those parents. This is a play full of intriguing ideas.
The matriarch of the group is Dorothea, a woman of the 1940s and ’50s who recalls that her father laughed when she suggested, at age 18, that she would prefer college to marriage. Dad won, and Dorothea’s life seemed destined for the homemaker trajectory until she found freedom in being eccentric.
“No one holds an eccentric responsible,” she says, and the label gave her license to pursue oddball topics, like levitation, speaking with the dead, and human-powered flight. She built a pair of wings and coerced her daughter, Artemis, then 15, to try to fly, while documenting the effort on film.
It was from wacky behavior like this that Artemis did take flight, by leaving home and moving continuously to escape her mother. Along the way, she discovered her own intellect and became a respected academic and researcher.
When Artemis had a daughter, however, Dorothea re-entered her life. For reasons, some heartbreaking but which made sense to Artemis, she allowed Dorothea to raise the child. Dorothea did it in her own style, of course, renaming the girl Echo and teaching her Greek and Latin when she was three months old.
Echo grew up loving words, not just the meanings but the sounds and the “feel” of the spoken word, and in that pleasure she found her own signature: champion speller, winning the national spelling bee with the word eleemosynary.
When the play opens, all this is in the past but re-lived in flashbacks. This method allows the women to speak to the audience to explain events as they saw them and to provide their insight. That’s how we get to know them so personally.
We also understand them through the expressive trio of actors in this production. Valerie Westgate, who was a moving Joan of Arc in 2nd Story’s production of that George Bernard Shaw play, is wonderful once again as Echo. She conveys the character’s bubbly joy as well as a sadness at her core – and a ferocious competitiveness, evinced as she replays the “eleemosynary” spelling bee.
Sharon Carpentier is an affecting Artemis, whether playing the teen embarrassed by her mother’s outlandish behavior or the adult, coping with the legacy of her own and her mother’s decisions. Isabelle O’Donnell makes Dorothea’s flaky behavior credible and endearing to a point, although like Artemis, I wouldn’t want to be her daughter.
The set and props are minimal, but under Mark Peckham’s direction, the emotions are rich and pitch perfect: heartfelt but not over the top. 2nd Story’s 70-seat DownStage Theatre, moreover, is like the play, small and intimate. It’s a great place to get up close and personal with these complicated women, their stories, and how the word eleemosynary, which means charitable, figures into their relationships.