By Michael Margolin
Robert Anderson wrote a play some 40 years ago that was made into a distinguished film with Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman. Called “I Never Sang for My Father,” it was a heart-wrenching look at the relationship between an aging man and his son – who was leaving to take up his life elsewhere.
I mention this because Lee Blessing’s “Eleemosynary” deals with similar themes, or to my way of thinking, the rough path between generations – partings, disruptions, half-hearted reunions and tense phone calls. Blessing’s play begins with the stroked out body of Dorothea, lying on a platform (in Mark Choinski’s facile, efficient set), attended by her granddaughter, Echo. The middle woman in the cast of three, Artie, soon joins them, and we know very quickly that they are in love and conflict with one another. Soon Dorothea is up and around and ready to pick up from Echo and initiate the generational saga.
Artie never got on with her mother who decided at one point in her life to be eccentric. “No one holds an eccentric responsible,” Dorothea tells the audience. In fact, each of the women describe themselves and their feelings directly to us; there can be no doubt what they feel about their mothers and daughters.
The setting is roughly contemporary, perhaps the late 20th century; Blessing keeps it generic and therefore universal. (Blessing gives short shrift to the men in their lives – a few words to marriage, death. I would like to know more about how they saw them, felt about them.)
Eleemosynary, Echo, a champion speller at age 13 tells us, means charity, and the play’s director explains in the program notes that the act of forgiveness is the charity in this play. Echo must forgive her mother Arftie’s somewhat irrational escape from Dorothea, leaving her with her eccentric grandmother, and Artie must somehow come to grips with her mother’s insouciance and insistence that girls can fly. (Yes, there are wings frequently strapped to arms during the two act play.)
Aside from sitting back and laughing or admiring some of Blessing’s quirky perceptions – “Life is a long apology,” for example – the major problem, if I am to be charitable, is that more is told us than dramatized. Several phone conversations between mother and daughter, for example, end with one putting down the receiver and saying “I hung up.” I knew that.
There is not a lot, then, for an audience to discover here, since so much is told us. This trope is repeated often as in how the author shows us Echo is good at spelling: She spells the words and defines them for us, and, if we are a bit slow, there is a list of definitions in the program for many of them. If you want your characters and the play to fly, this may be a bit pedestrian.
So, it seems to me that what we have here is a series of sketches, scenes – sometimes funny, sometimes charming – but if this was about a math whiz, it wouldn’t add up. (Artie tells us, after a painful telephone call with her daughter, that she is not good at touching. That one needs dramatizing.)
Actually, the quite short play, coming in at about an hour and a half, would be better served without the intermission so that its accretion of oddity and quiddity and funkiness would meld the themes together, like glue, and build a stronger impression.
Yasmine Jaffri directs this production with a certain rapport; I think she likes these characters and that comes across. On opening night, the fades to black were flaccid, and the movie screen at the stage rear was underutilized. Jaffri could pump up the energy a bit.
As Dorothea, the eccentric matriarch, Stephanie Nichols bites into her character’s nuttiness and chews it up for us; I wouldn’t have minded if she went even further.
As Echo, the girl in the middle, Autumn Thiellesen seemed moved by the relationship with her two mothers, though sometimes her projection was muddy.
Finally, as Artie, the woman fleeing her mother and her own ownership of motherhood, Karen Kron was appealing, portraying the confusion about her own feelings as well as those around her.
I feel no confusion whatsoever: This is not yet a fully realized play. But it has enough human feeling to involve us in the trip across generations, but not to care deeply.
$18. UDM Theatre Company at Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 McNichols Rd., Detroit. Friday-Sunday through Oct. 9. 313-993-3270. http://theatre.udmercy.edu