Also see Sharon's review of Urinetown
Fremont Centre Theatre’s production of Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary certainly doesn’t do much to raise your expectations. The show has a “Sunday evenings only” schedule, crammed in while another play takes the stage for the rest of the weekend. It is clearly secondary on Fremont Centre’s bill - its set is two pieces of furniture placed in front of a plain white backdrop (which suggests it is hiding the set for the other play), its few props ooze cheapness, and it has no costume designer. It is a one act play with a three person cast, and everything about it gives the impression of a slapdash production thrown together in order to fill a little empty stage time.
So, it is all the more amazing when the play begins, the actresses inhabit their characters, and the minimal production values all but disappear in the face of a smart and moving story.
Eleemosynary - the title is defined early in the play - is the story of three generations of intelligent women and the actions they take when their personal desires conflict with external expectations. The story is told through narration and flashbacks, as well as more linear storytelling. The tale ends up unfolding via the reversal of cause and effect. An action that seems inexplicable early in the play is easily understood when we learn more of the history later in the play. You can almost hear the pieces click into place. One woman’s act of emotional cruelty toward her daughter suddenly makes sense when we see the psychological antecedent in the mother’s own life. Blessing’s script makes it easy for the audience to feel sympathy for all three women, as he demonstrates that everything they do is the product of what has been done to them.
Cheryl Anderson plays Dorothea, the family matriarch. Dorothea is a smart woman who craved education when education wasn’t an option. She ended up directing her intellectual curiosity into less traditional pursuits, such as psychic communication and human-powered flight. Indeed, the play opens with a flashback of Dorothea forcing her unwilling daughter Artie to experiment with a pair of homemade wings. (If there is one place the show’s minimal budget undermines the play, it is with the wings. The wings we see Artie attempt to flap do not appear particularly well-engineered. As an invention, the wings give the initial impression that Dorothea is not very bright at all, which runs counter to the play.) But despite Dorothea’s unusual interests, Anderson does not play her as a flighty individual. Anderson’s Dorothea is solid, no-nonsense, and powerful.
Jennifer Gatti first appears as the fifteen-year-old Artie, being directed by Dorothea to flap those wings with all her might. Gatti’s expression oozes teenage displeasure; Artie clearly thinks her mother is nuts and she would rather be anywhere but here. Gatti frequently returns to that expression, even when portraying Artie as an adult. This is right on target; as the play progresses, it becomes clear that Artie is a woman who would rather be anywhere else but in her life.
The real star of the piece is Veronica Lauren, who plays Artie’s daughter, Echo. Lauren is adorable when the play flashes back to Echo’s infancy, letting out sweet little baby giggles. But her teenaged Echo is stunning. Echo is a young woman who knows she is smarter than most others her age, and Lauren shows both Echo’s joy at using her intelligence to get what she wants, and her occasional nearly-paralyzing fear that she won’t be able to fit in. In some ways Eleemosynary is the story of Echo’s coming-of-age - not in sexual way, but an emotional and intellectual one.
It is somewhat disappointing that, in this age of “chick flicks” and “Lifetime movies,” calling something a “women’s story” is something of a curse - giving rise to images of women sitting around talking about sex, or weeping over their friends diagnosed with breast cancer. Eleemosynary is the sort of women’s story that smart, modern, multi-faceted women can be proud of.
Eleemosynary runs Sundays through June 13 at Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena. For tickets, call (626) 441-5977.
Fremont Centre Theatre - Lissa and James Reynolds - in association with Terrance Hines and Fran Bascom present Eleemosynary by Lee Blessing. Directed by Terrance Hines. Assistant Director Laura Roth; Stage Manager Ryan Cantwell; Assistant Stage Manager Dawn Cantwell; Lighting Design Katie Dunn; Scene Design Consultant; Victoria Profitt; Stage Crew Art McLeen; Graphic Design Big Concepts, Inc.; Publicity Phil Sokoloff.
Photo by Jerry Neill