Three generations of women, blessed and cursed with genius, ambition and eccentricity, provide a moving evening of theater in Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective’s production of Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary. This quirky gem of a show runs through Saturday, June 30, at the BeBe Theatre.
Lee Blessing has been a reliable and imminently producible playwright for decades. Though never achieving status alongside the likes of Neil Simon or Arthur Miller, Blessing built a strong catalog of plays that have become staples of college and community stages.
Local director Kristi DeVille found herself in this particular play in college, and gives the Different Strokes production a passionate and inspired direction. From a set of librarylike shelves and elevated platforms (designed by Laura Lowe), she guides a trio of mesmerizing actresses across the space and time of family dysfunction, which divides and unites these women in unique ways.
As Dorothea, Janet Oliver has a spry twinkle. Dorothea found herself forced to accept marriage and motherhood while surrendering her intellectual pursuits. She might have been a great mind of her generation, were she not stunted by society’s expectations of women of her era. Instead of finding defeat in it, she chooses to become eccentric, as she puts it.
Dorothea has many children, but only one daughter, Artie, shows promise to follow in her footsteps. Artie, however, finds her mother’s ways to be overbearing. Pushed to abort a teen pregnancy, she resents her mother and flees, making her own way. Jessica Law gives Artie equal measures of sympathy and frustration. You want to root for her, but find it off-putting when she essentially shuns her own daughter years later.
Artie leaves her daughter, Echo, to be raised by a doting Dorothea, who encourages the young girl to follow in her eccentric path. Meanwhile, over years and awkward phone conversations, Artie pushes Echo to become a spelling bee champion. This is partly in further defiance of her own mother, and partly a means of remaining close with Echo while having a safe non-emotional buffer.
Echo (expertly played by Amanda Shive) is a product of the mistakes and misgivings of both women in her life, but shows more clarity of her own identity as she becomes a national champion and endeavors to force herself into her mother’s life while healing the rift between Artie and Dorothea.
The play is told in confessional moments, directed at the audience. These give way to flashbacks that fill in gaps. The conclusion will leave the audience a little teary-eyed but also enriched by witnessing the journey of the play’s three characters.
Eleemosynary is defined as “charitable.” And, while much of the actions of the women of this story seem to run counter to that word’s meaning, in the end you can’t help but feel as though Different Strokes has given its audience a great gift.
WHERE: The BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St., differentstrokespac.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, June 30. Thursdays-Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m. $18