Monday, February 27, 2017

As a Sesquipedalian Excogitation of Consanquinity, 'Eleemosynary' is Enjoyably Perspicacious -- Chicago Theater Review

(Headline = As a big word-heavy study of kinship, 'Eleemosynary' is enjoyably astutely perceptive.)

Chicago Theater Review

a play by Lee Blessing
directed by Jeremiah Barr & Derek Bertelsen
Aston Rep Theatre Company
at The Frontier, Chicago
Thru March 12

After recently seeing the fine new play, Faceless, still running at Northlight Theatre, I saw its author speak at two related events.

Though that drama quite topically focuses on a white teenage American girl joining ISIS and being prosecuted by a Muslim attorney, Selina Fillinger twice noted that she didn't think of herself as a "political playwright."

And that she sees all plays as political, even seemingly "light and fluffy" works, for they reflect how one chooses to spend an evening and the requisite money, while eliciting a range of responses, thoughts and emotions.

Though I found this to be an astute observation, it didn't stick with me in any active sense but came instantly to mind on the Thorndale CTA platform as I considered Eleemosynary, a three-woman, 70-minute play I had just seen by Aston Rep (at The Frontier, not their usual home at The Raven).

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
Written by Lee Blessing in 1985, the show focuses on Dorothea, an intellectual, eccentric grandmother (well-played by Debra Rodkin), Artie, her research scientist daughter with a photographic memory and impassive maternal instincts (the always excellent Alexandra Bennett) and Artie's daughter, Echo (Sarah Lo, giving a truly terrific performance), a spelling bee champion--hence all the big words--that Dorothea primarily raised.

I had never heard of the play before being invited to see it, and it doesn't appear to ever have run on Broadway. (Blessing is best known for A Walk in the Woods, which did.)

In speaking briefly to Aston Rep artistic director Robert Tobin, he shared that company members Derek Bertelsen and Jeremiah Barr--who co-direct here--had worked on the play elsewhere and recommended it. And with the troupe wanting to stage a winter production for the first time, the available space at The Frontier lent itself well to a small cast and intimate staging.

Hence, Eleemosynary--which essentially means "relating to alms or charity" and is one of many big words adorning Samantha Barr's beguiling set design;  believe me, I had to look up paronymous, charivari, favonian, sortilege and more--isn't a play overtly tied to current times.

But that's, in good part, what I liked about it.

Only once did a trifling reference make me think of our current president, and it was nice to be immersed in a universal drama ostensibly about the interpersonal distances that can develop among those closest to us, not a contemporary sociopolitical polemic.

With just three characters, the pacing is brisk and dialogue intriguing, as the play begins with Echo caring for Dorothea after the latter has suffered a stroke.

And in ways likely much more politically relevant than may seem obvious, it was interesting to note the dynamic between three generations of women who seem to have both a lot and not much in common.

Teen girls clashing with their mothers may not seem all that revelatory, but imagine if yours tried to get you to fly--literally, with self-made wings--as Dorothea does here to Artie, in a flashback.

This is just the most visceral moment of disconnect in the play, but throughout the point seems to be made--of no small relevance today--that the most important communication may be with those it seems most difficult.

Dorothea, Artie and Echo appear to be quite different within the play itself--some of the reasons for which Blessing's script smartly addresses--but that no one would likely imagine these three actresses to be related, without it mattering in the slightest, not only furthers the overarching themes of the play, but subtly makes it more "political."

And rather directly resonant.

I can't quite call Eleemosynary sensational--or some fancier synonym for it--as I don't think I was ever quite moved to the degree I should have been.

But it's yet another example of stellar work I've regularly seen from Aston Rep and/or director Bertelsen. And for a rather small investment of time and money (check HotTix), you can see an interesting play and--so close to the "L" you hear the trains rattle--three rather elevated performances.

I've liked Bennett quite a bit previously--particularly in Aston Rep's Wit, a play I raved about long before The Hypocrites' version recently received similar praise--and though I haven't knowingly seen Rodkin, she's clearly a pro with the dexterity to make Dorothea outrageously exasperating yet subtly lovable.

So it is with no slight to the other two women that I say appreciatively, the work here by Lo is really something to behold.

Not only does the young actress hold her own with a pair of stalwarts, her ability to balance the tricky multifaceted emotionality of Echo--callous Spelling Bee hyper-competitiveness in one scene, crying on command tenderness in the next--is, ultimately, what makes Eleemosynary most coruscant. (Just click to look it up.)

And for me, appreciating the arts, our differences, similarities, challenges and simply one another, is just about the most important--and impactful--thing we can do in these political times.

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