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Eleemosynary

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Lee Blessing's touching, textured drama of three generations of women is admirably performed by the gifted ensemble of Cheryl Anderson, Jennifer Gatti, and Veronica Lauren, under the nuanced direction of Terrance Hines. Blessing explores language and love in this story of Dorothea (Anderson), who as a young woman was denied her birthright to an intellectual life and therefore sets out to live as an eccentric because "no one holds an eccentric responsible." In her quest for eccentricity, Dorothea talks to stones, conjures spirits, and, along the way, sets an impossibly high standard for her daughter, Artie (Gatti).

As the play opens, Dorothea is announcing to a gathered crowd that her daughter is about to conquer flight with nothing more than a pair of canvas wings strapped to her arms. The event will be captured on film, says Dorothea, even as a terrified Artie refuses to climb a tower for her maiden flight. The opening scene is certainly a metaphor for this mother-daughter relationship, as Dorothea urges her child on to flights of impossible achievement, cajoling her to take a leap of faith into the unknown, where Dorothea herself feels so comfortable. Artie is not only afraid to take her mother's leap, she is just as stubborn as her mother and is determined to reject completely Dorothea's fantastical vision of life.

Inevitably, Artie flees the nest, but not before having her own child, whom she names Barbara but her mother insists on calling Echo. The child (Lauren) is a girl in the mode of her grandmother, in large part because Dorothea spent long hours teaching her Greek and Latin beginning at the tender age of 3 months. Deserted by her mother, Echo grows up happily in the dreamy intellectual stratosphere that surrounds Dorothea.

Not surprisingly, Echo grows up to be a championship speller (a cautionary note for American education that has long since abandoned the obligatory study of Greek and Latin). She wins a national spelling bee by correctly spelling eleemosynary, which, as we all know, means "of or supported by gifts or charity." She also correctly spelled ovoviviparous, meaning "hatched within the body of the parent but not directly tied to the parent as in viviparous animals."

In fact, Echo's birth and life, at least metaphorically, are ovoviviparous, as she was hatched within the body of her mother but was not directly tied to her, as in most humans. This is the tragedy of the play, as Echo struggles to bridge the divide between her mother and grandmother, insisting that Artie not only attend the spelling bee but kiss Dorothea as well. Such is the power of love that Echo, like all of us, will go to extraordinary lengths to rescue even a shred of love's crumbling cloth.

The acting here is quite powerful, with Lauren crafting a devastating performance as the damaged but courageous Echo. Anderson is masterful as the determined, nearly obsessed Dorothea, and Gatti is solid as the tormented Artie. Fine direction by Hines and a lovely, barebones set by Victoria Profitt add to this powerfully emotional production.

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