Eleemosynary: Redefining the Family Drama
By James Van Eaton
There is a strong temptation, in opening this review, to define the titular word in the manner of Webster or Oxford. Such a presentation might lend an academic air to the text which follows and would certainly cause speculation as to how the newly disclosed meaning pertained to the themes and general goings-on of the play. It is a temptation, however, which must be resisted, as the word eleemosynary, like the play which bears its name, is not so easily, all-at-once defined. There is a surface definition, to be sure, but deeper understanding of its meaning and use requires context and example, and I’m pleased to report that Mask and Mirror’s “Unmasked” presentation is a fantastic classroom in which to learn that lesson.
Eleemosynary’s plot is a bit difficult to summarize outright, partially fashioned as it is from vivid swaths of dioramic memory, outward facing-monologues, and split-stage phone conversations, but it concerns the lives of three generations of Wesbrook woman, their trials and triumphs, and how their lives intermittently unravel or intertwine. Lee Blessing’s script has eccentricity, academia, and hard choices in a time sequence that flows in and out and rounds on itself, but always feels perfectly natural. It delivers sad moments as distance, regret, and poignancy rather than stock tragedy, and its brighter portions are filled with giddiness, delight, and yearning fulfilled.
Katy Philp has an incredibly difficult role to play in Artemis, mother to the bold Echo and daughter of the eccentric Dorothea. Artemis strives to obscure a childhood of painful uncertainty with rote stability while trying, with equal worry, to love her daughter from a self-imposed distance. She’s a character of clenched fists and a defeated posture for a good deal of the show, and Philp brings a grounded realism to the part much of the time. There were a few moments, and one affecting flashback sequence in particular, where a clearer delineation between her character’s contemporary age and temperament would have been a welcome thing, but in every other respect she excelled. She was resolute and captivating in juxtaposing fear, concern, and the possibility of happiness, as well as painfully sympathetic while wielding words as tools of distraction during her phone conversations with her daughter Echo. There was one, small, grand moment early on where Philp stood facing the audience, holding herself tightly, and her character’s restless, fractured soul shone with a kind of sorrowful radiance though eyes caught by stage-light. It was the briefest thing, but illustrated the depth of connection between the actress and her character.
In contrast to her harried daughter Artemis, the Wesbrook’s metaphysically inclined matriarch Dorothea, as played by Kathleen Silloway, begins her timeline stately and controlled. Silloway has the bearing and authority of an impassioned college professor. Her voice commands and her physical presence defies gravity as she gathers herself for powerful declaration. This arresting style of oration, while never out of place tonally, did cause an initial imbalance in that Silloway’s declarative monologues felt more natural and rousing than some character interactions, but that aspect soon smoothed, and allowed Silloway to display an impressive array of emotions. From hard refinement to softest care, from wounded regret to unrestricted joy, the actress navigated the many facets of her character’s life with a believable, relatable momentum. As with Artemis, an abundant amount of character work and background study clearly went into creating Dorothea. Silloway’s adherence to her character was both admirable and infectious.
The daughter of Artimis and the frequent ward of Dorothea, the youngest Wesbrook family member Echo carries within her a balance of both women, as well as a bright and lively will of her own, and actress Jenny Newbry became the very embodiment of that will. In gradually coaxing feelings from her mother, addressing the audience with sweet frankness, or uncovering a surprisingly vicious competitiveness at a crucial point, Newbry was perfectly connected to every moment. An act as simple as the slow turn of her head could relay a depth of feeling or inner turmoil, and her connection to the other characters was first-rate. She instilled in Echo a proud and winning heart unguarded against pain that, when fractured, left the audience in a similar state. Hers was an astonishingly natural, at times achingly heartfelt performance that will be difficult to surpass.
Eleemosynary is a play of moving, intimate moments, pleasing good humor, and rough-spun philosophy slipped into dialogue and carried out as though by sleight of hand. Director Daniel Hobbs presents a vision that is spare, but entirely fitting. Beneath a simple framework of broad lights the characters distractedly pantomime, speak from behind partitions, and exit through a hastily pulled-aside curtain. These actions, combined with the storytelling monologues and transitions in time, might create the impression of disorder, but it is quite the opposite. There is an element of inevitability to the proceedings, a pattern of nuance which seems almost predestined for quality. Eleemosynary, like the family it features, is the obvious product of fortitude, hard work, and love. And it’s a show you shouldn’t miss.
With only a two-week run, you only have three more chances to see the show!
Eleemosynary, July 13-22 2018, Fri/Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2:30 pm, Tualatin Heritage Center