Thoughts & Musings

Theater Takeaway: 2nd Story’s Eleemosynary

Women and/or wordsmiths, this is the show for you.

by Casey Nilsson, RI Monthly
  • 5th November 20145/11/14
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On a cold November night, there’s no warmer place than 2nd Story’s intimate DownStage theater.

Warm in a “to the core” kind of way where, in a world filled with distractions and divisions, you can sit shoulder-to-shoulder with your beloved and watch a smart family drama unfold, then fold back up again, in seventy minutes flat.

Playwright Lee Blessing’s complex Eleemosynary follows three generations of brilliant women: Dorothea, the eccentric grandma; Artemis, the absent biochemist mother; and Echo, the ruthless spelling bee champ daughter. All three bear symbolic names that mirror their distinctive personalities, but they evolve over time — thank the theatrical gods for that.

Words, as you might’ve guessed, take center stage in this story. Ones like rataplan and dysphemism and logodaedaly. (“A one-word yodel!” Echo quips.) And eleemosynary, which means “charitable.” But the familial drama keeps the audience engaged — tipped forward as mother and daughter duke it out, then tossed back with laughter after an impeccably delivered quip.

While this show might not be for everyone — nary a bell nor whistle in sight and, let’s face it, it boasts a lot of big words — it’s a perfect fit for both wordsmiths and women. Bring your mother, your daughter, your smartest friend. You’ll enjoy it. Here’s the takeaway:

From Echo: Spelling bees are scary.

At the start of the show, Echo, played by the sweet Valerie Westgate, rattles off dozens of arbitrary words in preparation for the National Spelling Bee. Then, on the Bee stage, she devolves into a mean-spirited, aggressive bully — and wins.

It’s clear the competition means more than an intellectual achievement: She’s proving herself to both her grandmother and her long-absent mother, Artemis, who left Echo with Dorothea after the death of Echo’s father.

From Dorothea: Chosen eccentricity is a thing.

Actress Isabel O’Donnell plays a flawless Dorothea, the matriarch of the family, delivering digs and jokes with such elegance. Of her many, many one-liners, this one stuck with me: “Eccentricity solves so many problems…. Nobody holds an eccentric responsible!”

Dorothea chose, in middle age, to become a New Age eccentric merely because she wouldn’t have to answer to anybody. Brilliant. She’s tragically normalized in old age, but the non-linear structure of the play offers a generous heap of Dorothea in all crazy stages of life — some comic relief, considering the strained relationship between her daughter and granddaughter.

From Artemis: Love needn’t be perfect.

Sharon Carpentier plays the detached Artemis, a woman who resists her mother’s overwhelming brand of love for much of her life, then does the same for her own daughter. She’s the most complex character in the play, and perhaps the most sympathetic, too — mainly because she learns in the end that love isn’t tidy and people aren’t perfect. But drawing loved ones near is almost always better than pushing them away, and that’s a lesson worth remembering.

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