Heartfelt performances; overwrought characters

SUNDAY, APRIL 18, 2010

With its difficult-to-pronounce title, Lee Blessing’s “Eleemosynary” may sound mysterious and exotic, but it’s actually that most common of theatrical vehicles: the relationship play.

Three women – teenager, mother and grandmother – constitute the cast of characters. They spend the better part of two hours hashing out their thorny feelings for each other. The show has a minimal set, virtually no plot and almost no action.

The result can be a tough slog, especially in the first half. Yet with intelligent direction by Maria A. Caprile and three heartfelt character performances, “Eleemosynary” has its rewards, culminating in an emotional reconciliation scene at the end when the Wesbrook women finally come to terms.

This Interplayers production is a textbook ensemble piece, with all three actresses sharing the play’s emotional core. You might call it a play with three leads, and Caprile has made three good casting choices.

Tamara Schupman plays Dorothea, the grandmother, with a grand, good-natured dottiness, all beaming smiles and exuberant waves of the arms. She’s a self-described eccentric, obsessed with all manner of Edgar Cayce-like psychic phenomena and especially with levitation. She has actually invented her own set of wings, with which she is convinced that she – or her daughter or granddaughter – will one day learn to fly.

Schupman has a good time with this part, convincing us that eccentricity, whatever else it may be, sure looks like fun.

Nancy Gasper plays her daughter Artie, who believes that her mother’s “eccentricity” is simply a convenient ruse for avoiding all responsibility and reality. She was so traumatized by her upbringing that she has turned into the ultimate anti-Dorothea – cold, pragmatic, scientific and unable to even hug her own daughter.

This is easily the toughest role of the show – playing “cold” must be infinitely more challenging than playing “exuberant.” Yet Gasper pulled it off, with a wry smile and a manner that suggested emotional detachment without ever coming off as stiff.

My favorite performance came from Rainee Palmer as the precocious teenager Echo. Now, Echo is not automatically lovable – she’s a spelling bee champion and awfully smug about it. She adores her grandmother, who brought her up, yet Palmer allows us to see how she aches, almost physically, for any sign of love from her mother. Palmer is sill a student at Eastern Washington University, but she has mastered the art of listening carefully and reacting to every line.

The show’s best-staged scene comes in the second half (this is a one-act play into which Interplayers has thrown an intermission), when Echo wins a national spelling bee. Palmer portrays her as the spelling-bee version of a trash talker (although only in her head).

Echo wants to win for several important reasons: so that the spotlight will be on her and her alone; so that her mother and grandmother will be reunited by her victory; and so that her mother will finally realize how special and lovable she is. Echo wins, but Caprile stages a heartbreaking aftermath, with Artie scurrying offstage, immune to the pleas of Echo.

The word Echo wins with? Eleemosynary. Meaning: charitable.

Blessing’s play certainly has its poetic elements, but the script, to me, never really worked. The characters too often failed the test of basic credibility. Dorothea is just too eccentric, Artie is just too cold. One glaring example: We are expected to believe that Artie is a mother who, when asked whether she loves her daughter, answers, yes, but on the other hand, no.

How many mothers do you know who are capable of that kind of answer, even if it’s true?

This review is based on the Friday night performance of “Eleemosynary” at Interplayers Professional Theatre.

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