Every now and then you encounter a play that’s as maddening as it is admirable.
Lee Blessing’s “Eleemosynary” falls into this rarefied category. On the plus side, Blessing’s evocative piece about three generations of women, each one eccentric and gifted in her own way, is a brainy consideration of the obligations and legacies of family. He gives us three rich roles to be played by actresses who, it is hoped, possess the gray matter to match their characters.
On the other hand, this extended one-act is a frustrating example of nonlinear (also known as fragmented) storytelling. It repeatedly shifts focus so that each viewer has to put together the characters and relationships like a jigsaw puzzle.
I can understand why Blessing chose to write it this way. By jumping back and forth in time, he’s able to convey the sweep of years in a play that runs only about 90 minutes. Understandable, but still exasperating.
The production at the Fishtank, directed by Sidonie Garrett, is dominated by Jan Rogge, who delivers a splendid performance as Dorothea, the nutty matriarch driven by the conviction that women must pursue their dreams. Rogge always seems to click with Garrett, and here the veteran actress gives us some of her finest work. Her comic timing is impeccable.
Heidi Van, as Dorothea’s daughter Artie, has the more difficult role, which Van bends to her specific talents with mixed success. Artie, who becomes a biochemist, is emotionally unavailable to anyone in her life. She flees Dorothea’s dominating personality — who wouldn’t? — but when Artie has a baby of her own, she leaves the child to be raised by Dorothea.
Indeed, the relationship between young Echo and her grandmother is the heart of the play. Artie is distant to the point of cruelty, but Van has always generated human warmth. It’s simply a tough sell.
As Echo, the compulsive learner and spelling bee champ, Katie Hall brings fresh energy to the stage in a guileless performance that is remarkable for its clarity.
The play’s title is a word that means charity, the giving of alms. Ultimately these characters come to view each other charitably, just as the viewers do. The complex relationships sometimes aren’t as clear as they need to be in this production, but by the end of the show, viewers will know that these three women have taken them on a singular journey.
The tiny Fishtank at its least claustrophobic is still a bit like seeing a play in a walk-in closet. For this show the audience is wedged into risers facing the stage and a row of chairs along one wall. Garrett makes the most of the space with an arrangement of platforms that allows enough depth and height to be visually dynamic.
Early in the show we watch Dorothea compel Artie, who is still a child, to attempt flight with a set of wings (one of Dorothea’s “scientific” experiments). The wings, designed by Erica Sword, are impressive and quickly become the star of the technical side of the show. Nicole Jaja’s lighting makes an important contribution by visually delineating scenes and creating transitions.
Complaints aside, I can report that you’re likely find yourself thinking about these characters on the drive home.