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Mothers and daughters, and the ties that bind them, make for compelling and timeless dramatic fare. Playwright Lee Blessing’s sparkling Eleemosynary constructs a trio of such relationships, viewed through the lens of extraordinary accomplishment and intelligence. Here, director Lynn Lammers does examine the expectations placed on exceptional women, but the bread and butter of this Williamston Theatre production is in the compassionate struggles of parents’ hopes and their children’s resistance, dually absorbing to watch and heartbreaking to experience.

The play is consumed with three generations of brilliant women: young Echo (Michelle Meredith), a teen spelling prodigy, mother Artie (Rebecca Covey), a coldly private research scientist, and grandmother Dorothea (Julia Glander), an unabashedly deliberate eccentric. Because understanding Echo is predicated on understanding her lineage, early scenes often find her in a solitary position as chronicler/monologist as the tumultuous relationship between Artie and her own mother is fleshed out. Having broken with the confinements of a woman’s traditional role in mid-twentieth-century America, bold Dorothea is so enamored of all information and beauty and philosophy, she seeks to expand her wonder beyond the known world and into spiritual and metaphysical ones. Artie, in adolescence conscripted into everything from regular hypnosis sessions to haphazard experiments in human flight, severs ties with her mother and makes choices directly in opposition to Dorothea’s dreams, her interests strictly tangible and logical. The path of this relationship is given careful and affectionate treatment by Covey and Glander, the former bringing empathy to her character’s flawed, reactionary decisions, the latter showing all sides of a woman so loving and open and driven, her irresistibility masking the related threat of being swallowed up in her dominant personality and passion.

Set designer Bartley Bauer creates a widely configurable, fiery triptych of a background for the women to inhabit and pass through in fluid tag-team narration of a tightly compacted story. The only actual set piece is a beautifully imposing pair of artificial wings, symbolizing the breaking point in Artie’s young life and embodying the family rift. The shifting compositions and needs of the various scenes are intriguingly met in Ryan Davis’s lighting design, which is never better than in summoning aching solitude. Costumes by Lori Sands mark each woman as an individual, from Dorothea’s insistent free spirit to Archie’s buttoned-up frankness to Echo’s charmingly quirky layers, but an astute viewer can discern — or maybe only imagine — the most subtle parallels.

For it’s their sameness that ultimately wins out, their misplaced hopes for each other and the rejection and complicated inevitability of any mother-daughter bond, here magnified to outstanding effect. Lammers somehow makes much of what’s not apparent: the finest and freshest element of this production is its clear projection of what the characters don’t understand, be it Echo’s childish machinations to draw her mother and grandmother together or Artie’s faulty estimation of her own shortcomings. The most obvious gaps in comprehension belong to the youngest character, and Meredith does an appreciable job in maturing Echo from age thirteen to fifteen, making a chronologically small advance into the developmental chasm it really is. The actor is likable and sweet as she first flexes her intellect with pure, single-minded focus, but becomes riveting as she begins to question her life and closest relationships and lashes out about the uncertainty of her future. However, for all that the points of this triangle are distinctive and interesting, it’s the lines that connect them, the relationships brought to life by these attuned performers, that demand — and deserve — the most attention.

The single act of Eleemosynary covers years and emotional ground with a complexity that belies its eighty minutes. This is a special family of women, with a curious and almost unbelievable legacy; moreover, each is individually special for more ordinary reasons, because of how she is misjudged, in spite of her human failings in things that fall beyond the scope of her intellect. In all, this production does everything in service of the florid relationships among its bright ensemble: the play shows both the infuriating challenges and the enduring touchstones of maternal bonds, at the exclusion of just about everything else, and its success here is in doing justice to the extreme view.


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