Three Wonderful Performances Fill 2nd Story’s Beautiful Eleemosynary
Audience members may find their own ways to connect with people they love in their own lives. That is the power of words and of a simple, beautiful play like this one.by Robert Barossi, Broadwayworld.com
For a writer, whether writing theatrical reviews or anything else, words are everything. Words are the lifeblood of the writer, that which provides a means for expression, revelation or catharsis. In Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary, presented by 2nd Story Theatre, words are also how one character lifts her soul and strives for excellence. The play as whole demonstrates Blessing’s own skill with words, as he crafts a poetic yet accessible play that deals with a number of very relatable human experiences.
Simple in all the best ways, Blessing’s play has just three characters, women who are three generations of the same family. There is a young woman, the word expert, who has an incredible skill with words and wants to bring that skill to a national spelling bee victory. Her mother is brilliant in another way, with a memory that retains absolutely everything. Then there’s the young woman’s grandmother, who has recently suffered a stroke and also has a certain genius, an eccentric and passionate brilliance.
Director Mark Peckham maintains the aforementioned simplicity all the way through the production, from the staging to the set. Performed in 2nd Story’s DownStage space, the actors roam and prowl a simple set of risers with ramps and steps, providing them with useful levels and distances. There are a few props along the back wall, just enough to help the performers tell the story. Peckham keeps the tone of the play accessible and casual. There’s never any overacting or unnecessary melodrama or playing to the audience. The actresses speak to us as if they’re talking to a close friend, sharing intimate details of their life in an honest and believable way.
As the youngest of the women, Echo, Valerie Westgate gives her best performance to date, at least out of those that I’ve had the chance to see. Her Echo is alternately an angst-ridden, angry teen and a brilliant woman with an impressive vocabulary and stunning way with words. Westgate impresses with how well she wields that vocabulary, never tripping up, or missing a beat, on the many long, multi-syllable words. While she capably handles the verbal calisthenics, she also gives a performance that ranges from hilarious to heartbreaking.
Also giving a wonderful performance is Sharon Carpentier as Echo’s mother, Artemis. It is a difficult role, one which the audience could easily hate, but Carpentier brings depth to the character and makes her sympathetic. The audience, instead of just hating a woman who abandons a child, feels the pain of this character and maybe even understand why she acts the way she does.
Finally, there is Isabel O’Donnell as Dorothea, the oldest of the three women. While the younger two exhibit their brilliance through words or science, Dorothea chooses eccentricity. She makes the conscious choice to live a life filled with no boundaries, only possibilities and the potential for anything, even the supernatural or paranormal, to happen. Like her cast mates, O’Donnell brings believable life to this role and makes Dorothea relatable and lovable. It is again a character which could become just cliché, the “oddball eccentric,” but O’Donnell makes it feel like a real person, someone we all might know in our real life.
A number of questions we’ve all asked in our lives are important to this short but thought-provoking play. There are themes of family, motherhood, parenting, education and genius. All three characters are brilliant in their own way and act on that brilliance in their own way. They are also women who have unique ways to connect with each other, or avoid doing so. It’s a credit to everyone involved that these themes and questions are presented in a way that reaches out and touches the audience so effectively.
That is helped by the DownStage space at 2nd Story, which has become one of the best spaces in Rhode Island to see a play. This play also happens to be perfect for that small, intimate space. The word “eleemosynary” appears above the set, in white letters that are separated from each other by spaces of various sizes. The disconnected letters are similar to the disconnected women who populate the world of the play, and it is perhaps through words that the three women will finally find ways to connect with each other. Through seeing and thinking on the play, audience members may find their own ways to connect with people they love in their own lives. That is the power of words and of a simple, beautiful play like this one.