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‘Eleemosynary,’ A Play by Lee Blessing, Opens Off-Broadway

May 10, 1989

NEW YORK (AP) _ ″Eleemosynary″ means ″charitable″ but it’s also the pretentious title of a not quite successful three-character drama by Lee Blessing, author of ″A Walk in the Woods.″

The play, which opened off-Broadway on Tuesday at Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage II, is about uneasy relationships, something Blessing also focused on in ″A Walk in the Woods.″ Instead of dealing with Soviet-American arms control negotiators, ″Eleemosynary″ looks at three generations of women, all of them desperate overachievers.

The most interesting and most eccentric is the grandmother Dorothea, played by Eileen Heckart, an actress too long absent from the New York stage.

Dorothea compensates for her unfulfilled marriage by relentlessly celebrating the bizarre - fortune-tellers, out-of-body experiences, trying to teach her infant granddaughter Latin and Greek, or telling her daughter she can really fly if she’ll only jump off a water tower while she films the flight. Miss Heckart revels in the character’s strangeness.

Dorothea’s forcefulness smothers daughter Artie (Joanna Gleason) who eventually distances herself from her mother as well as her own daughter, Echo (Jennie Moreau). Artie eventually flees from both of them, finding refuge in a research job abroad.

She can only communicate with her daughter by phone, and then it’s only to quiz her in spelling rather than talk about anything personal.

All of this background is told by Blessing in what amounts to cross-cut monologues. There is minimal interaction between the three women, with most of their speeches directed to the audience. The play, compressed into one long act, is episodic and not necessarily chronological or even dramatically compelling.

″Eleemosynary″ hinges on a national spelling bee which the teen-age Echo enters with a vengeance. Both mother and grandmother are alarmed at the girl’s vicious competitiveness as she battles her way to the championship. The championship match is the play’s best scene, and Miss Moreau projects the scary single-mindedness of a true believer.

Miss Gleason has the drama’s most unappealing role, a mother always running from her family or any kind of emotional commitment. She manages to make Artie’s plight sympathetic even if the character isn’t.

The women are constantly at war with each other, and their battles eventually grow tiresome especially when presented in snippets of scenes that don’t allow the action to build. Director Lynn Meadow has almost choreographed the drama with the ladies running in and out of the nearly bare playing area all the time.

The playwright resists sentimentality until the end of the evening when he stretches for a hopeful, if not a happy, ending. ″Eleemosynary″ is graced by three exceptional actresses who do their best to find the drama and humor in Blessing’s uneven play.

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