Can an estranged grandmother, mother and daughter find grace in time to rebuild their family? This is the question Compass Rose Theater poses in their promotion for Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary, an award-winning play that takes its name from an obscure word in a spelling bee dictionary. Appearing now through Mother’s Day, this study in maternal dysfunction should be required viewing for everyone but childless orphans. For if nurture trumps nature and we are what our parents made us, then the playwright’s message is that life is a long apology.
Echo Wesbrook (Maya Brettell) is a sweet and precocious 15-year-old: a national spelling bee champ with a mind like a steel trap, a heart encased in steel springs and the singing voice of an angel. She, like all the Wesbrook women, has this expectation about herself: to be extraordinary. She was raised that way by her eccentric grandmother, Dorothea (Ilona Dulaski) and absentee mother, Artie (Janel Miley). Dulaski is an indomitable charismatic to Miley’s fragile-looking but unyielding wisteria vine. Brilliant, bruised and broken to varying degrees, they live in a bubble of frustrated love. But as one explains in a voice resonant for all, “She can’t help it. It’s not her fault or mine, and it wasn’t her mother’s fault either.”
Checkered memories inform their misguided choices in non-linear fashion as all three women relive the vivid aspirations and disappointments of 60 years. Dorothea, a frustrated intellectual and spiritualist, saved her dream to be realized by subsequent generations. Artie, the scientist, speaks of a childhood troubled by asthma of the soul under her mother’s domination. “I could never take a deep breath of who I was,” she says, explaining how she came to spend her life running away from life. With her youthful capacity for forebearance and forgiveness, Echo determined to unite the generations.
It seems unbelievable that a man could write so telling a play about mother-daughter relationships. The play is so spot-on that the audience groans, laughs and chides the players as if they were family gathered around the dinner table.
According to one teary-eyed male spectator, it’s the same with fathers and sons. Compass Rose is therefore right on target in billing this as an intelligent and touching play appropriate for ages nine and up as run-time is under an hour and a half.
With a mission to teach young people, Eleemosynary is also the perfect choice to christen Compass Rose’s new black box theater on Westgate Circle in Annapolis’ growing Arts District. The unpronounceable word pertains to charity, and countless charitable donations of time and services transformed a carpet warehouse into a performance space twice the size of the company’s old home.
Artistic director and founder Lucinda Merry Brown is extravagant in her praise of R.E. Robertson Plumbing, Weisman Electric, Capital Roofing, Inc. and Martinez & Johnson Architects for their donations of expertise, labor and materials to create the new theater. An online capital campaign seeks to recruit another 1,000 fans willing to donate $49 to complete upgrades such as state-of-the-art lighting at 49 Spa Road.
The new space has 25-foot ceilings that allow characters to soar metaphorically and physically. For this production, the stage is minimally set with nests of books on platforms, the perfect metaphor for the women’s cerebral existence. To see a towering young Echo revel in her victory while young Artie crashes with spectacular shame in a forced attempt at flight with home-made wings is to understand the generational chasm between their appreciation for Dorothea.
Eleemosynary will send you soaring, and falling, on an emotional roller coaster.
Director: Matt Bassett. Set and Props: JoAnn Gidos. Costumes: Julie Bays. Lights: Cat Herine Girardi. Stage Manager: Kevin J. Brennan.
Playing thru May 12, FSa 8pm, Su 2pm, plus Th Apr 18 & 25 8pm and Sa May 4 & 11 2pm at Compass Rose Theater Company, 49 Spa Rd., Annapolis. $30 with discounts; rsvp: 410-980-6662; www.compassrosetheater.org.