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A CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
Catalyst Theater Company is offering a whimsical treat over on Capitol Hill with its production of Lee Blessing's touching Eleemosynary. (Pronounced "eli'mósu`neree," the word means charitable or beneficent.).
The play is about three generations of Westbrook women whose lives are completely intertwined precisely because they completely do not understand one another's intrinsic natures. As they try and allow enough room for each to maneuver, they also learn some things about love and charity.
Grandmother Dorothea is a New Age spiritualist who discovered, while she was a young mother, that eccentricity could provide her with great freedom. And so, to escape a marriage that she was pressured into entering, she has thrown herself into anything that is odd, cosmic or unseen by the general masses. By choosing to become a certified eccentric, she opens up to a greater sense of peace and develops her own inner strength. Daughter Artemis (Artie) is as tightly wound as Dorothea is free-flowing. Artie views her life as "a long apology" and wilts under her mother's strong-willed confidence. So while Dorothea talks to spirits, Artie hides out in her research laboratory. Dorothea, who is so calm and quirky, never realizes the effect she has upon the young woman and really can't understand why Artie is so set upon looking at life in such drab colors.
Meanwhile Artie's daughter, Echo, who is being raised by Dorothea after Artie abandoned the child, is extremely intelligent and on her way to becoming the National Spelling Bee champ. It's Echo who is driven to bring the estranged Dorothea and Artie back together in an attempt to give their worlds some form of wholeness.
Staged on a simple set of pilings, Mr. Blessing fills his dialogue with wit and sarcasm, while also providing touching moments that are sweet, yet not sentimental. Drawing pictures with his words, he's taken some slightly unusual (but not impossible) situations and uses them to shine a light on mother-daughter relationships everywhere.
Director Christopher Janson keeps the play firmly revolving around the words the characters' speak, thus highlighting the beauty of the playwright's language. There is an ebb and flow as the actresses move through Milagros Ponce de León's stage design -- pulling fabric wings from a hidden nook, laying down on a step, standing behind see-through screens -- which helps the relationships come to represent an intricate dance. Matthew Nielson's sound design incorporates some lullabies and folk influences that provides the music to this generational waltz.
Gail Stewart Beach's costumes are symbolic of each woman. Dorothea is in colorful, flowing linen, a scarf wrapped around her head. Artie is bound together in a suit and heels with her hair tightly pulled back. Meanwhile Echo is outfitted in retro wear that makes her look like a Sixties love child.
Ellen Young brings out the strong will and motherly concern of Dorothea. She has a twinkle in her eye the entire performance, which gives a hint as to how mischievous this grandmother can become. She highlights the play's humor as she matter of factly answers questions from her granddaughter with placid confidence and a metaphysical shrug.
In the difficult role of Artie, Kathleen Coons walks a tight line to retain the audience's sympathy. Artie is a woman who purposely taught her infant daughter wrong things in a passive aggressive attempt to get back at both her mother and her child. Shortly after her husband (and Echo's father) Richard died she gave her mother custody of the girl and left for Europe, ostensibly for good. Ms. Coons delivers this hard-edged woman in a way that you see how her inner frailty emerges as a steel wall to keep others at bay.
Lindsey Haynes moves through Echo's various childhood ages with ease. When she is taking the dais for the National Spelling Bee, her cutthroat demeanor is quite funny and -- one imagines -- right on target. She also brings out the pathos in Echo as the child who wants her parents (in this case Dorothea and Artie) to simply get along and be a family once again.
Mr. Blessing's play, and Catalyst's production of it, will warm you up on these chilly nights as winter begins to wane here in Washington. One could say it's the company's own little eleemosynary relief for the mid-winter blues.
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