Thoughts & Musings

Up in Alms: 2nd Story Stages Portrait of 3 Conflicted Women

Peckham’s 2nd Story cast and crew are superb throughout. Chalk “Eleemosynary” up as another hit!

by Dave Christner, Newport Mercury
  • 5th November 20145/11/14
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In the Apostle Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, he writes of “faith, hope, and charity.” The original Greek word agape which means charity was altered in the King James Version of the New Testament to the word “love.” It should be pointed out as well that Faith, Hope, and Charity are the names of three martyred saints in early Christianity.

In playwright Lee Blessing’s “Eleemosynary,” a play about three women struggling to find familial love in a fractured world, the word eleemosynary is used to mean charity (love) in a family where it is hard to come by.

Dorothea (Isabel O’Donnell) is the matriarch in a family of three that includes her daughter, Artemis (Sharon Carpentier) and her granddaughter, Echo (Valerie Westgate). Dorothea and Artemis are estranged and have been for many years; Echo lives with Dorothea.

The purposefully eccentric Dorothea has high hopes for her daughter and faith that Artemis can fulfill the lofty goals Dorothea has set for her, one of which is to fly without the aid of any external source of propulsion. The brilliant Artemis, who doesn’t share her mother’s faith in the supernatural, naturally is unwilling to take a leap of faith off the side of a barn to prove her mother’s point. Instead, she chooses to take flight away from home and live her own life as far away from her mother as possible.

Things go well until Echo comes along and Artemis loses her husband; that’s when Artemis gives up Echo so she can continue her professional life, first in Europe then back in the states. Even when back home, however, Artemis remains estranged from Echo and Dorothea, keeping in touch through periodic phone calls. It is only after Dorothea has a stroke that Artemis returns home.

Perhaps it is because he believes “home is where the heart is” that Blessing reunites the family at the homestead for the story to unfold. And unfold it does under the brilliant direction of Mark Peckham and on a deceptively simple set designed by Max Ponticelli. The set is unobtrusive and dark, consisting of four slightly elevated levels, a black brick wall upstage housing a few books, and a set of “wings” on the “mantle” for Artemis’ projected flight.

What is complicated are the lives of the three conflicted women in the play. O’Donnell’s portrayal of Dorothea is exquisite; symbolically, she is faith and hope — having faith in and hoping for nothing but the best for Artemis — and at the same time inadvertently driving her away.

As Artemis, Sharon Carpentier is a marvel; she skates on the thin ice of being both the mother and daughter in the play, trying at the very least to placate one or the other when both demand much more. Carpentier gives Artemis an aloof sensitivity that is both tragic and unsettling in a dazzling performance.

Westgate’s interpretation of Echo is extraordinary as well; Echo is funny, caustic, independent, headstrong, and crying out for love; Westgate captures every nuance of Echo’s search for acceptance and love from Artemis. On an intellectual battlefield, she is a formidable opponent; on the emotional front, she is lost. Westgate loses herself in the role to the audience’s delight.

“Eleemosynary” is a demanding play of ideas and ideals. It’s heavy on words, but they are good ones and the Blessing’s portrait of a family in disarray is touching and intelligent. The lives of three brilliant women are examined not by a feminist but in the strange flight of fancy of Blessing’s male perspective. I don’t know if his view will ring true for everyone or not, but it certainly provides food for thought and makes for powerful drama. Peckham’s 2nd Story cast and crew are superb throughout. Chalk “Eleemosynary” up as another hit!

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