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Salt Lake theater company's 'Eleemosynary' is witty and warm

Published March 2, 2017 5:10 pm

Review • Pygmalion's production showcases three well-matched, thoroughly engaging performances.
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"Never have a daughter," Artie advises the audience early in "Eleemosynary." "She won't like you."

Lee Blessing's play is a celebration of words and the three generations of articulate women in the Westbrook family who use them as tools and weapons, and Pygmalion Theatre Company's tender and telling production effortlessly explores the dynamic that pulls them together and drives them apart. Barb Gandy (Dorothea), Tracie Merrill (Artie) and Sydney Shoell (Echo) interact so naturally that we never doubt they are a family.

The play's opening scene imagines what lies ahead. Granddaughter Echo animatedly spells words downstage, telling us "there are words I'd give my life for." Behind her, grandmother Dorothea coaches her daughter, Artie, who is wearing an enormous pair of wings. Dorothea tells us Artie will fly; as Artie, Merrill looks not only skeptical but shell-shocked.



Her reaction captures the relationship between mother and daughter: Dorothea inspires and intimidates Artie. Echo later tells us that the Westbrook women "have this expectation about ourselves. To be extraordinary." The question is, exceptional in whose eyes and at what cost?

Artie's ambivalent feelings for her mother and her need to become her own person shape her relationship with Echo; she leaves and lets Dorothea raise her daughter, who desperately wants her mother's love. Perhaps becoming the National Spelling Bee champion is a way to get it and reunify the family.

For her part, Dorothea decided early on that eccentricity was a way to escape the conformity and rigidity of women's roles in her generation. "Eccentricity saved my life. It became my life. I thank God for it. For all the good — and the harm — that it caused," she tells us.

"Eleemosynary" unspools in a series of vivid vignettes that flow back and forth in time. Some of them are funny, others touching, and still others tingle with tension. The three women interact in telling the story, often giving us conflicting or complementary perspectives on the same event. "I'm telling this," Artie snipes at her interrupting mother at one point.

Thomas George's simple set consists of just a few platforms, allowing director Jeremy Chase to move the actors fluidly around in different configurations as their relationships shift. The three actors are onstage almost the entire play, intensifying the timeless feel of the story. Jesse Portillo's warm lighting highlights characters as they relate events. Michael Nielsen's relaxed, straightforward costumes feature various shades of blue, bonding the women together visually.

Gandy, Merrill and Shoell do a great job finding just the right balance between these characters' desire to fulfill their individual potentials and their need for family love and support. No matter how divisive situations become, the underlying love that unites this family is always clear.

Mother-daughter relationships never run smoothly, and Blessing reveals the chance for misunderstanding escalates when those women are bright and talented. The real blessing of this play is that he tells their story in a way that is thoroughly engaging but never depressing. "Eleemosynary" lives up to the meaning of its title: "charitable." —

'Eleemosynary'

Pygmalion's production of Lee Blessing's articulate play about conflicted relationships between mothers and daughters is funny and heartfelt.

When • Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 11 with an extra matinee on Saturday, March 11 at 2 p.m.

Where • Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $20; $15 for students and seniors; 801-355-ARTS or pygmalionproductions.org

Running time • 80 minutes (no intermission)

 

 

 

 

 

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