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FPCT’s Eleemosynary: Tough Play, Honorable Try

As the Fells Point Corner Theatre website frankly announces, Lee Blessing's 1985 play Eleemosynary was a second choice. FPCT had cast and put together a different three-actress play (Albee's Three Tall Women), when the rights were abruptly withdrawn. So on an emergency basis, the three actresses and director Sherionne Brown went in search of another play. What they came up with was Eleemosynary.

A theater company taking on Eleemosynary is going to have its hands full, because the play is messy. Much of the early going for the audience will be consumed trying to work out certain elementary aspects of the story, because the non-chronological and deliberately sketchy exposition leaves unnecessary ambiguities in the timeline. After we finally sort through, about halfway in, what is going on, we are going to wonder why and what it means. We learn but little of the answers to these questions. And at the end, the playwright parades this half-baked pie of a tale as if it were a culinary triumph, a well-made play. It is not.

Specifically, Eleemosynary, now being assayed by the Fells Point Corner Theatre, chronicles the lives and relationships of three generations: grandmother, mother, and daughter. As we eventually learn, Grandmother Dorothea (Joan Crooks) retreated into eccentricity in the 1940s to escape from a stifling marriage, Mother Artemis, a/k/a Artie (Marianne Germaine) retreated from both her mother Dorothea and her daughter Echo, apparently driven off by mom's eccentricity, and Daughter Echo (Jenn Mikulski) has turned herself into a feral spelling bee competitor in an effort to reunite her mother and grandmother. As if this emotional non-sequitur of a premise (why would Mom abandon Daughter to Grandma over Grandma's rather mild eccentricities?) weren't enough, the whole thing is presented in a sort of Our Town format, where both the living and the dead address the audience, and indeed there are more (quasi-poetic) addresses by the characters to the audience than moments of (quasi-naturalistic) dialogue among them. A play has to be very good to survive that kind of presentation.

You have to hand it to this company for gamely trying to make this work. In particular, Jenn Mikulski is a revelation. Whether mewling like a baby or being an eight year-old, or impersonating a passionate teenager, she is spot-on. Particularly impressive is her frightening evocation of the inner monologue of a spelling bee queen at the moment she vanquishes another competitor. We can readily believe the other characters' descriptions of her as an owl demolishing a field mouse. But Echo is the only credibly-written character, so perhaps Mikulski has an unfair advantage. But she takes full advantage of that advantage, and acts up a storm.

The other two actresses are given roles that their artifice can only take so far. Mother Artemis has to be a cipher; the script gives no credible explanations for her abandonment of her daughter, or her edgy dance of reconciliation that takes to the end of the play to reach its halting and still somewhat inconclusive conclusion. But there are degrees of cipherdom. If we cannot understand the emotions, we can at least be made to believe they exist. Artie's answer to the question whether she loves her daughter (the answer is "yes" and "no" both), in the hands of a more accomplished actress might at least take on some believable ambiguity. We might see the yes and the no each reflected in body language and expressions, instead of the monochrome wary and superficial nervousness that Marianne Germaine seems to have substituted for them. As it is, we can scarcely believe in Artie's almost inhuman avoidance of Echo - or even of Dorothea. But even if Germaine had knocked the believability thing out of the park, she could not have made Artie work very well.

Nor does the script provide enough support for an actress evoking Dorothea. I do not profess to know how eccentrics who believe in Edgar Cayce and the power of humans to fly by flapping prosthetic wings are made, but I seriously doubt that they are ever accounted for simply because their parents and husbands are sexist oafs (which appears to be all we're going to be told on the subject). Neither does one become an eccentric of that sort by a conscious act of will, as is presented here. Nor is it easy to take seriously the notion of that sort of flamboyant nuttiness as some kind of proto-feminist rebellion, which seems to be suggested. In short, Joan Crooks is asked to portray a character not found in nature. It is little discredit to Crooks that she fails at the task. What she does accomplish is to ferry the character with little damage from one end of the play to the other.

At the end, as already mentioned, playwright Blessing attempts to limn these dissimilar portraits of familial dysfunction as some kind of triumphant joint identity: three women each transcendent in some similar fashion. But he proclaims it without having proven his case in dramatic terms. Would that he had done so.

Hence Fells Point Corner Theatre, through little fault of its own, cannot promise a transcendent evening of theater. But FPCT can claim that it has showcased honorably one of the lesser early works of a respected American playwright. Not bad for a rushed second choice.


Eleemosynary is presented Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., March 12-April 11, 2010 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 South Ann Street, Baltimore, MD 21231. Tickets $10-$17. 410.276.7837.


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