Ellemosynary, now playing downstage at 2nd Story Theatre, is a one-act play about the relationships between the Westbrook women. Echo (Valerie Westgate) is a champion speller who adores her grandmother Dorothea (Isabel O’Donnell). Artemis (Sharon Carpentier) is Echo’s mother and Dorothea’s daughter.
Ellemosynary, which means charitable, is about women who try to be loving toward each other but sometimes come up short. The story is told in flashbacks, as Echo relates how she grew up under Dorothea’s influence. Dorothea was a “notable eccentric” who was interested in communicating with the dead and astral projection. When Echo was 12, she wanted to be “the greatest speller in history.” Meanwhile, Artemis tells of how she chafed under Dorothea’s control, which was so unbearable she fled the country after suffering a tragedy. Artemis is neurotic but highly intelligent. She loves Echo but doesn’t know how to be a real mother to her. The interactions between the women are alternately sad and humorous.
Playwright Lee Blessing knows how to write sharp, witty dialogue as well as how to create deeply textured characters. Echo experiences a lot of confusion and pain after being abandoned by Artemis. This is expressed in an overwhelming desire to win the National Spelling Bee. Echo berates a fellow contestant and spells out a series of words in a fury.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Westgate, who previously starred as Joan of Arc in Saint Joan, brings the right amount of charm and vulnerability to Echo. Carpentier makes the audience understand Artemis’ character flaws and gains our sympathy. O’Donnell gets a lot of laughs as Dorothea imagines seeing historical figures and quips about her views of life.
The set design is spare. The word ‘ellemosynary’ is spelled out in block letters on a wall. There is no furniture on the stage. The characters are on a multi-level platform where they share their memories.
Relationships are a lot like life, the play says: sometimes awkward, sometimes joyful, and sometimes unforgiving. Love isn’t easy, but it’s worth reaching for.
Ellemosynary runs through November 23. 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market Street, Warren. 401-247-4200