I believe anyone who writes will have a special affinity for 15-year-old Echo, National Spelling Bee champion, who is literally in love with words. Not language, as she points out; beautiful words can mean ugly things, and it doesn’t matter. It is all about the words themselves. I also believe anyone who loves a fine play will be delighted with Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary, a singular and remarkable work that uses its own text to illustrate the pleasures of immersing oneself in the beauty of the spoken word and the inner lives of three brilliant women.
I was deeply moved when I saw Eleemosynary long ago, and before seeing Slightly Askew Theatre’s production, I read it to see whether the passage of time and life would had made me feel less awed by it, and it has not. I still think there are so many wondrous aspects to the drama (with humor) of a grandmother, mother and daughter that resonate with me still. Here, Margeau Baue Steinau is Dorothea, the tribal elder (and yes, she’s too young for the role, but that doesn’t matter because her character is aged but not old). Rachel Tibbetts is Artemis (called Artie), the reluctant daughter to Dorothea and mother to the precocious Echo (Madeleine Steinau) who has been cared for almost exclusively by her grandmother.
All three women’s names are of Greek origin, which is fitting since Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a significant totem in the story and concept in their lives. Dorothea has found herself by embracing eccentricity. She comes from a time when marriage was valued over education for women, so she married and began producing sons. After the third, she asked her husband if she might go to college now, and he refused, but her compensation was her fourth and last child, Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt in myth (and ironically, of childbirth). When Dorothea finally has her daughter, she is no longer the mother of sons in her own mind. “I liked the girl,” she asserts.
For her part, Artemis is brilliant, but she finds her mother embarrassing. Dorothea can go for a walk and come back relating a tale of meeting President James Monroe on the street, or just casually mention something like, “Last night I was bodily assumed into Heaven.” But there is much meaning in her madness; in fact, she is a divine fool, but “Artie,” being a teenager doesn’t appreciate it. Her mother even makes her wear wings and films her trying to fly without propulsion of any kind. Besides being reminiscent of the Daedulus/Icarus tale in reverse, the incident is also metaphor for the power of the individual to transcend the strictures of the world and its conventional expectations.
Artemis loses her way for a while and rejects her mother, but when she lets Dorothea know she is pregnant, Mother comes running. Artie calls her daughter “Barbara,” but Dorothea names her “Echo,” most likely to represent a realization of her dream of creating a kindred spirit. The mythic Echo was in love with the sound of her own voice, and Hera got so tired of hearing her that she cursed Echo and made her become just a reflection of the voices of others. And this defines the action of spelling: repeating the letters of a word. Echo is proud of her ability, but it ultimately threatens to take her over.
Eleemosynary (the title is explained in the play) uses elevated language, exaggerated personalities and unlikely events to tell a very real story of mothers and daughters that becomes extrapolated into a discourse on women’s lives, their joys and frustrations, their expectations and outcomes. These actors are well-suited to their parts. Baue-Steinau is excellent as the otherworldly, yet practical matriarch. Tibbetts has the most difficult role, and she’s mostly up to it, though she does become a bit shrill at one point. Still, it’s a fine performance. High school junior Steinau shows great promise, but her performance is, while good, not quite at the level of her elders. She was a bit flat and she needs to work on elocution. Director Ellie Schwetye has chosen to use a live pianist (John Schranck) for incidental music, and the instrument is placed upstage right. When anyone except Baue-Steinau is around that part of the playing area, the piano drowns her out. It needs to be played more softly.
The scenic design is simple—a ramp, lots of books and a pair of gauze wings. Fittingly, a dictionary and the Metamorphoses are both prominently placed. Schwetye also designed the set. David Hahn’s lights illuminate the speaker or speakers and puts the other(s) in shadow. Artemis often seems to be dozing during her time outside the light, which may be representative of her inability to connect with the generations on either side of her. The color purple, representing magic and mystery and the seeking of spiritual fulfillment is worn by all the characters in various permutations.
SATE has never been afraid of a challenge, and because of that, the company has done some amazing work over the years. Top Girls comes to mind, and especially 4.48 Psychosis, a play I shall never forget. Eleemosynary belongs in that rare company. It is a beautiful piece, well-played and insightful. Its words are like music in themselves, so perhaps that’s another reason why I find the piano intrusive and even redundant. Finally, Lee Blessing is a man, but one who has a preternatural understanding of women, and the author’s gender in itself would make the play interesting to see. But there is so much more to be experienced here. Eleemosynary is not to be missed.