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Eleemosynary explores generations of women

Jennifer Belliveau and John Klein | Monday, November 10, 2003

Eleemosynary. E-L-E-E-M-O-S-Y-N-A-R-Y. Eleemosynary: of or relating to charity, the giving of alms. Part vocabulary lesson, part dramatic family saga, and part comic narrative, playwright Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary played Friday to a full house in Washington Hall’s lab theatre. The one-act play combines the emotional effect of an abandoned child and a scorned mother with the humor of an eccentric old woman and an overachieving spelling bee champion to form one compelling narrative about three distinctive women.

The play centers on the story of three generations of women. Dorothea (Ellen Kennedy) is an unconventional woman who gives her daughter, Artie (Cheryl Turski), a most unusual upbringing. Dorothea’s dissatisfaction with her sheltered life led her to seek solace in spiritualism and idiosyncrasy. Eventually, Dorothea’s odd habits and drive to succeed push Artie away. The two live apart for many years without speaking until Artie calls Dorothea and announces she is pregnant. After Echo (Devon Candura) is born and Artie’s husband dies, the two move in with Dorothea. Artie continues to feel overwhelmed by her mother, and when she is offered a job in Europe, she jumps at the chance, leaving behind Echo to be raised by Dorothea. Dorothea sees Echo as another chance to raise a daughter, and she emphasizes the importance of education and becoming self-sufficient. Echo listens to Dorothea and becomes the national spelling bee champion, using her talents to try to make her mother love her. Ultimately, tragedy befalls Dorothea and Artie returns home to her mother and daughter for a final reckoning with reality. The play ends with the women facing the truth about their relationship for the first time.

Eleemosynary resonated with the audience on many levels. Everyone can appreciate the pain involved in familial relationships or the desire to be loved and understood. The emotional impact of the play was apparent at the touching culmination, which had many audience members in tears. Director Megan Ryan realized the full potential of every scene with the remarkable ability to send the audience from laughter to anger to tears from scene to scene.

Technically, the show is flawless. Stage manager Theresa Rutherford does a fantastic job of executing every single light cue, which would be a somewhat minor achievement were it not for the fact that the lighting design is superb in its complexity and artistry. Simple shifts in color and intensity at key moments, particularly in the final scenes (the climactic spelling bee is a knock-out), provide extra emphasis, and at times the changes are so subtle that they force the audience to do a double-take, subconsciously shifting their focus even when all three characters are present on stage. While many would assume there is little to be said about a set composed entirely of black boxes, the lack of any substantial set only aids further in helping the audience to place their attention on what really matters: the incredible performances of the three leading ladies.

Each of the three actresses truly understood her character and how to highlight the specific traits that made her stand out. As Dorothea, Ellen Kennedy captured both the woman’s quirkiness and her need to excel intellectually. Her witty asides provide much of the play’s comic relief. Though the audience sympathizes with Dorothea, trapped in a stifling life she did not choose, we can also understand why she infuriates Artie. Cheryl Turski depicts Artie’s seeming aloofness and emotional vulnerability with ease. As Artie the adolescent, she is sulking and rebellious. As the Artie the mourning daughter and reluctant mother, she is exposed and hesitant around those she cares about. The audience is able to hate her actions while seeing the reason behind them. Devon Candura’s Echo is endearing and irritating as only a little kid could be. She perfectly portrays Echo as a child who is desperately searching for her place in the world by constantly striving to be the best while inwardly searching for her place in her family. She is at once innocent and arrogant, helpless and wise beyond her years.

The set, scenery and costumes were all very straightforward. The actresses wore the same outfits throughout the entire play. Artie looked the part of an austere professional, Dorothea the distinctive matron, and Echo a young woman in school. Again, the simple set highlighted the acting talents of the three characters, who transformed the black boxes into beds, hills, wooden towers, and stages. Props were limited to two wooden wings, brought out repeatedly over the course of the play to accentuate the attachment between the three women.

The script creatively uses an interesting, unorthodox setting and story to tell a timeless tale of family love. The play was limited only in the overabundance of audience asides by the characters. The women are forced to talk to the audience frequently, while the play works best while showcasing the interaction of three members of a family.

Overall, Eleemosynary was an outstanding performance by three very talented actresses. The direction and technical aspects of the show perfectly accentuated the characters’ situation and conveyed it to the audience. Small touches, such as the list of Echo’s spelling words included on the program or the wings that showed up throughout the play, further heightened the show’s ability to touch the audience. The performance can be summed up in one word: B-R-I-L-L-I-A-N-T.

Contact Jennifer Belliveau at jbellive @nd.edu and John Klein at [email protected]