|Jenny Newbry, Kathleen Silloway, and Katy Philp|
Photo by Katherine Roundy
By Tina Arth
When I was a rock-collecting kid, I loved geodes – it was the thrill of breaking into the inscrutable exterior and finding a sparkling world of crystals nestled inside. Occasionally I’ll have the privilege of watching a play, heretofore unknown to me, that has the same thrilling effect. Playwright Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary, part of Mask & Mirror’s edgier “UnMasked” collection, is definitely a contender for top honors in my geode category. Director Dan Hobbs clearly understands the play well (how a male playwright and a male director can “get” the complexities of mother-daughter relationships with such precision is a happy mystery to me); like the exterior of the geode, his deceptively simple staging opens up to reveal stunningly beautiful performances by the three women in the cast.
The play examines the plight of three exceptionally intelligent women (grandmother Dorothea, daughter Artemis, and granddaughter Echo) raised in three very different eras, and the strange relationships that have developed among them. Dorothea, denied an education and forced into an unsought marriage, has chosen extreme eccentricity and magical thinking as her path to intellectual freedom. Artemis (“Artie”) escapes her mother’s overpowering personality by running away (several times) and choosing to embrace the logical boundaries of science in place of her mother’s determined rejection of observable reality. When Artie’s husband dies, Dorothea moves in and takes over the job of rearing and educating Echo; Artie soon runs away again, abandoning her daughter to the grandmother’s care. The play jumps around chronologically, but begins with the comatose and dying Dorothea being cared for by Echo and ends with Echo committing to establishing a loving relationship with Artie. In between, let us just say, ”stuff happens.” The play makes perfect sense when done properly, but a more detailed synopsis would just sound absurd.
I cannot overpraise the performances of the three women. I was particularly moved by Katy Philp’s heart wrenching take on Artie – her silent pleas for salvation from her mother’s delusions, the moments of humanity that peep out of the rigid wall she has built around her psyche, her fierce intelligence mixed with perhaps a touch of autism, her frustrating inability to stay with her daughter yet maintain her autonomy. Irrespective of age (like the others, she plays herself at several stages of her life) she conveys her character’s tortured inability to express her emotions, maintaining the same awkward posture and diction throughout. Kathleen Silloway’s portrayal of Dorothea is, in contrast, charming but maddeningly unmoored – my (perhaps too rational) self wanted to just slap her for her enthusiastic embrace of delusion and her absolute inability to see what she was doing to her daughter through the years. And then there’s Jenny Newbry’s irresistible Echo – a fine mix of her mom and grandmother, and yet somehow completely her own woman. Even in her most hypercompetitive moments, Newbry’s smiling enthusiasm and bizarre optimism shine through. One of Artie’s most poignant lines is “Never have a daughter. She won’t like you,” and Newbry’s charitable insistence on breaking this pattern finally absolves both Artie and Dorothea of their extreme shortcomings.
With minimal sets and little space on stage, the lighting is used brilliantly to create the spaces and breaks that define the show’s sometimes-peripatetic progress. Audience proximity (the Tualatin Heritage Center) is a real plus, as everyone in the room gets to see 90 minutes of superb acting up close and personal – the only way to see it, in my opinion. UnMasked productions have only a two week run, so it is essential that you get tickets right away for one of next weekend’s performances – in a just universe they will sell out quickly.
Mask & Mirror’s Eleemosynary is playing at The Tualatin Heritage Center, 8700 SW Sweek Drive, Tualatin, through Sunday, July 22, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:00 on Sundays.