Spelling Champ

There's a moment in TheatreScape's Eleemosynary that's so moving, so perfectly theatrical, it nearly trumps all that came before it. Following her curtain call, tiny Michelle Chin, her eyes filled with tears, crosses the stage to retrieve the paper wings that are her character's prized possession. The play is over; Chin's character has no more lines to speak; but that single march across the stage, the way Chin cradles the wings and tosses a glance out at us before exiting, is perfection.

It's this attention to detail -- the wide purple wing sketched onto the set's cubist triptych; the tears welling in Lauren Bahlman's eyes when she confronts her daughter; the wonderful musical bit enacted by Barbara McGrath -- that make this Eleemosynary so gratifying. Lee Blessing's nonlinear story is a tough one to tell; a stylish, witty play as challenging as a good word game. Its lighthearted narrative is crammed with sadness and loss; it asks us to root for some pretty pitiless people; its main storytelling technique is avoidance. But Patrick Du Laney's skillful, intuitive direction and pitch-perfect cast make sense of these complicated women and their less-than-perfect lives.

Blessing's play is a meditation on the mother-daughter bond, personified by three generations of women for whom love and resentment are indistinguishable. To escape the restrictions placed on American women of the 1950s, Dorothea (McGrath) "becomes eccentric the way some people become Lutheran," because a man at a cocktail party told her that eccentric people aren't responsible for their actions. Her daughter, Artie (Bahlman), rejects her wacko mother ("Never have a daughter. She won't like you," she tells us) and, afraid of visiting the same mistakes on her offspring, abandons her own daughter shortly after she's born. Dorothea raises Echo (Chin) to value uniqueness, but all Echo wants is a relationship with her mom, who's run off to Europe. Echo's attempts to reunite her family by becoming the world spelling bee champ fail (because this is theater, she wins the national competition with the word "eleemosynary," a synonym for "forgiveness," something her family yearns for), but Blessing leaves us with an agreeably imperfect resolution, a windup that's as complex as it is inspiring.

McGrath is as brightly funny as ever, and makes sense of the conundrum that is Dorothea. If we never care if her character lives or dies, we still root for McGrath, because she makes even her meanest lines sing with humor. Her daughter, Artie, is a chronic malcontent, but Bahlman makes her funny and, somehow, sympathetic -- not at all the monster mother she is on the page. And if Chin is occasionally shrill and rambling, it only adds to her performance, because this is precisely how we expect a preteen egghead to behave.

Blessing has written stage-dwarfing characters. But Du Laney reins in his performers, so that rather than being a trampoline for their talents, the monologues they read reach our ears as warm recollections, full of casual language and more affection than I suspect Blessing intended. The result is a sad story told with a generosity of spirit, a detail that makes this Eleemosynary such a memorable production.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela