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And Your Mother, Too

A play delves into mother/daughter relationships

Marianne Germaine takes wing.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 3/31/2010

Eleemosynary

Through April 11 at Fells Point Corner Theatre

Two of the three characters in Lee Blessing's Eleemosynary, now at the Fells Point Corner Theatre, are familiar theatrical types. Dorothea is the colorfully eccentric older woman like Auntie Mame or the Madwoman of Chaillot, while Echo is the put-upon normal child of an eccentric family like Alice in You Can't Take It with You or Patrick in Mame.

Artie, by contrast, is a character rarely glimpsed in any theater. She not only pursues her career at the cost of neglecting her daughter Echo, but also refuses to feel bad about it. Yes, she admits, it's unfortunate that a young widow with a month-old baby, a serious science job, and a needy mother (Dorothea, of course) had to make such a decision, but she made her choice and is prepared to live with it. Audience members accustomed to the rules of stage and screen wait for this woman, who turned her daughter over to the grandmother for raising, to break down and admit she made a terrible mistake.

The scene doesn't come and doesn't come, and each delay makes the anticipation all the greater. Near the end of the show, when the audience realizes the formulaic climax may never arrive, a different kind of catharsis occurs: the epiphany that such a woman may not be required to apologize. That tension is enough to make a fascinating evening of this ambitious but flawed production of an ambitious but flawed play.

The playwright himself seems only dimly aware that Artie is the most interesting aspect of his script. Blessing keeps loading up the show with intellectual baggage, pitting empiricism vs. superstition, memory vs. forgetting, music vs. the meaning of words. Such dialectics are all well and good for undergraduate seminars, but on stage they tend to make the eyes glaze over.

The author even gives the play a misleading title. "Eleemosynary" is one of the words that wins Echo the National Spelling Bee, but its definition, "charitable," seems inappropriate for these three women who are anything but altruistic.

Baltimore director Sherrione Brown, by contrast, knows just where the heart of the play lies, and she gives the key role of Artie to the best actress in the cast: Marianne Germaine. Actresses Joan Crooks and Jenn Mikulski, as Dorothea and Echo, respectively, employ the big gestures and funny voices appropriate for their flamboyant characters. Germaine, by contrast, is an island of stillness in the choppy sea of the acting around her. A small woman with brown bangs and high, rosy cheekbones, Germaine makes her biggest impact by being quiet and self-contained every time Artie's mother or daughter tries to bait her into a noisy argument. Germaine creates dramatic tension simply by defying the theatrical convention of loud family squabbles.

In a flashback, we see Artie strapping on two pillowy white wings and climbing a wooden tower to prove her mother's contention that human beings can fly by will power alone. By the time Artie turned 18, she had been so scarred by her own mother's nutty, new-age pursuits and stage-mother habits that the teenager ran away from home. When she had a daughter named Barbara, Dorothea swooped in, renamed the child Echo, and took over all maternal responsibilities. Despairing of ever winning such a battle, Artie simply surrendered. She went off to do research in Europe, while the wealthy widow Dorothea raised Echo by herself.

The play begins and ends as a 75-year-old Dorothea is dying from a series of strokes. Echo assiduously tends to the unconscious woman, even holding imaginary conversations with the grandmother who raised her. The death brings Artie back from her university to deal with the question of who will raise 13-year-old Echo now. The result is one more confrontation that resists all expectations.

The play is largely told through monologues addressed directly to the audience, a static approach that dampens the drama's impact. The show is further weakened by some line stumbles and by an unattractive set of two white-sheet curtains and a lumpy bed. Yet when Artie engages Dorothea or Echo in actual dialogue, the sparks fly--not because Germaine erupts into anger or dissolves into tears, but because she so stubbornly refuses all pressure to do so.

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