Arts & Culture » Theater

Word Up: Eleemosynary casts its Slightly Askew spell



There's something magical about a play when its individual elements work in concert. The alchemy of script, actor, director, set designer, musicians and technical crew hitting their marks at the same speed all night can create a hidden presence that suffuses and uplifts the entire production.

Ellie Schwetye's interpretation of Lee Blessing's family drama Eleemosynary is one of those rare, valued instances when you feel that living presence breathing with you all night. Eleemosynary the word means "an act of charity." Eleemosynary the play is the story of three generations of women in the same family, two generations of which are always at odds. Blessing's script is heavy on definitions, because the youngest character is working toward the national spelling bee. But the play hinges on not just knowing this word, but in the characters being able to actively put into practice the meaning. The gap between knowledge and comprehension is where Eleemosynary begins and ends.

Dorothea (Margeau Baue Steinau) is the matriarch of the family, an intelligent woman who was forced to marry well and become a supportive wife and mother when all she really wanted to do was live a life of constant self-education and -discovery. Her daughter Artemis (Rachel Tibbetts) was instead given the gift of bountiful education, first by her mother and then by the finest schools; Artie resents her mother's control and "manifest destiny" approach to her life as much as she resents her Dorothea's eccentricity. Artie's own daughter, Echo (Madeleine Steinau), was dumped on Dorothea when Artie followed her scientific work to Europe; Echo resents her mother for abandoning her almost as much as she loves her grandmother. Their tripartite relationship is brought to a head when Dorothea is incapacitated by a stroke and Artie and Echo are left to either work it out or go their separate ways for life.

These are Schwetye's instruments, and she sets them in matchless point and counterpoint for much of the evening. Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble is based on the principles of movement-based theater; its performers move with a purpose and precision that is not quite as stylized as dance and not as natural as traditional stage blocking. The techniques allow the three actors in Eleemosynary to incorporate into their movements a complete visual language that is uncommonly eloquent. Tibbetts keeps her distance from her mother and her daughter, rarely raises her arms above her waist and can stand with a stillness that is both chilling and mournful. Madeleine Steinau has the unself-conscious gesticulations of a teenager (full disclosure: she is a teenager), but as befits Echo's skill as a preternaturally intelligent spelling-bee champion, these gestures become more confident and aggressive during her scenes of competition.

Margeau Baue Steinau crafts a depiction of a 70-year-old woman who has embraced a life of willful eccentricity that is so precisely rendered that it would play just as clearly if she were speaking a foreign language. Dorothea crouches slightly and then expands in starbursts of movement when she's discussing a fascinating idea or exulting in the successes of both daughter and granddaughter. And yet when she watches Echo on the phone with Artie in a futile attempt at convincing her wayward mother to come visit, Dorothea's face freezes into a mask of sorrow and regret that spreads throughout her body and stills her entirely. Artie, visible on the other side of the stage, is just as quiet, just as desperate.

Despite her carefree attitude and endless positivity, Dorothea knows she's partially the author of all these strained relationships. She never vocalizes that recrimination, but in that moment it is written in every locked joint. It will not spoil the ending for you if you know that late in the play, Dorothea's same stillness allows Artie and Echo to at last communicate honestly and meaningfully with one another.

Eleemosynary is aided immensely by live piano accompaniment written and performed by John Schranck. It is an almost indulgent luxury in a play that's already rife with beauty, and yet it wouldn't be the same without Schranck's contribution. That's the magic of a play when everybody works in concert: Remove any element and it all falls to pieces.

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