Monday, September 06, 2010

MOXIE’s Eleemosynary: Charity Rewarded


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“A celebration of bad girls,” MOXIE Theatre is proclaiming as the theme of its sixth season. Now comfortably ensconced in the former Cygnet Theatre space at 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N — east of College Avenue and near the San Diego/La Mesa border — they’ve opened said season with Lee Blessing’s 1985 play Eleemosynary. It’s a play about three women — grandmother Dorothea Woodruff (Rhona Gold), mother Artemis a.k.a. “Artie” (Julie Anderson Sachs) and daughter Echo, a.k.a. Barbara (Rachel Van Wormer) — mom wanted to give her the normal name but grandma insisted on an unusual one. It takes place, at Blessing’s insistence, on a stylized set, a series of platforms at various levels with ramps that alternately serve as pathways, chairs and beds, and for the first few minutes it seems as if the characterizations are going to be as stylized as the set. Then the emotions kick in, and you begin to love, hate, identify with and feel as frustrated by these characters as they do with each other.

Eleemosynary is a play that gets so perfectly into a female-centered view of the world — Dorothea, Artemis and Echo are the only on-stage characters and the plot is constructed so that men are involved, even as off-screen presences, as little as possible — it’s startling to do a Web search on Lee Blessing and find out that he’s a man. What’s more, his most famous play, A Walk in the Woods, is about an encounter between two men, arms control negotiators for the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, a plot and theme as different from Eleemosynary as one could imagine coming from the same author. The plot of Eleemosynary is centered around the almost preternatural intelligences of the three characters and the different ways in which they come out.

Trapped in an arranged marriage in which she gave birth to three sons before finally having the daughter she craved all along, Dorothea has deliberately cultivated eccentricity, claiming to converse with the dead and at one point hiring a professional filmmaker to document her experiment in getting her daughter to fly without any more motive power than strapping artificial wings to her arms and flapping them. (Julie Anderson Sachs’ expressions in the scenes in which her mom is trying to get her to do something she knows all too well is impossible and dangerous are priceless.) Artie pursues a career as a medical researcher and marries her boss, only to lose him in a car crash a month after her daughter is born; she’s also haunted by the ghost of a previous baby, fathered by a gardener at Dorothea’s home, whom — under pressure from her mom — she had aborted. Echo inherits the family’s brains and expresses them by going through the dictionary and cherishing the most obscure words therein; eventually she uses that skill to enter spelling bees and ultimately rises to contention for the national championship.

Premiered in 1985 and first produced locally in 1990 by the San Diego Actors’ Theatre, Eleemosynary — a word meaning “charitable” that figures prominently in the climactic spelling bee — is a tour de force for an ensemble cast that gets what it needs from MOXIE. Director Chelsea Whitmore keeps her actors in almost constant motion, flitting them about the platform set in a way that adds energy and urgency to Blessing’s script. She also gets flawless performances from all three actors. Rhona Gold is properly overbearing as the domineering maternal figure who manages to suck everyone around her, particularly her descendants, into her weirdness — until she’s struck down by a stroke and becomes uncomfortably dependent and helpless. Julie Anderson Sachs creates Artie as a figure of pathos, clearly caught in the middle and able to relate to her daughter only long-distance, as a voice at the end of a phone prompting her with obscure words to prep her for her spelling bees. (One of the gimmicks of Blessing’s script is that when Echo was just a few months old, Artie abandoned her for her career and let Dorothea raise her. Blessing never really tells us why, which depending on your point of view is either powerful ambiguity or maddening vagueness.)

In some ways Rachel Van Wormer has the toughest acting challenge of any of the three principals. While MOXIE doesn’t include biographies of any of the actors (or anyone else) in their program, a Web search reveals that Van Wormer is a young adult woman who graduated from high school almost a decade ago and has already acted professionally (on the very same stage!) in Cygnet Theatre’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. She’s utterly convincing as a pre-pubescent girl in a script that requires her to enact her character at various stages of her childhood. Even the scenes in which she’s playing Echo as a baby, snuggling up to her forbidding grandmother as Dorothea tries to push her to learn language well before she’s ready, are astonishingly credible.

MOXIE’s technical crew are well up to the standards set by the actors and director. Special kudos go to sound director Matt Lescault-Wood, who manages by simple sound effects — the beeping sound of a piece of medical equipment, a few bits of canned applause as Echo competes for the national spelling-bee championship — to suggest worlds beyond the simple platform set Angelina Ynfante has provided as per Blessing’s instructions. The costumes by Jannifer Mah are also appropriate — especially Dorothea’s bizarre knit outfit — and though it’s unclear whether the wings both Sachs and Van Wormer wear in different parts of the play are costume or prop (Ynfante is credited with properties and scenic design as well as the set), they’re a powerful motif that sums up Dorothea’s impractical but uplifting expectations for both her descendants. Lighting designer Karin Filijan bathes the action in a warm, autumnal glow that works, though a bit more variety in the lighting might have helped make an already dramatic production even more powerful.

Ultimately, Eleemosynary is a play about family; the payoff is that both Artemis and Echo realize that, however crazy and unreasonable Dorothea may have seemed, she raised them well and gave them a gift of charity. (That famous part of the Bible that names the three gifts, including faith and hope, says that the greatest gift of all is one variously translated as charity and love.) MOXIE, whom I suspect couldn’t put on a bad production if they tried, has given San Diego’s theatergoing audience yet another gift of charity: a first-rate production of an eerily compelling play. Don’t miss it.

MOXIE Theatre’s production of Eleemosynary runs through Sunday, September 26 at 6663 El Cajon Boulevard in the Rolando area. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit the MOXIE Web site at