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Stop-Gap Presents ‘Eleemosynary’ Tonight : Drama: The Santa Ana troupe wants to remind playgoers that it is first and foremost a theater group. It will appear at South Coast Repertory.

For more than a decade, Stop-Gap, a Santa-Ana based theater troupe, has been lauded for its groundbreaking drama-therapy workshops.

But the group’s history of social activism, which has included work with battered women, drug users and the elderly, has overshadowed its reputation as a traditional theater company that stages three full-scale productions annually, founder and director Don Laffoon says.

“We are proud of the direction we’ve taken in spotlighting social issues, but we are first and foremost a theater company and we’re proud of that too,” Laffoon said.

“We work very hard, as do all the other theaters in Orange County, to provide a strong play that, like all good art, will change one’s life in some way,” Laffoon said. “So, of course, to be recognized as a theater company is important to us. . . . We’ll put ourselves up for critics to decide.”

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Theatergoers of Orange County can judge for themselves with Stop-Gap’s production of Lee Blessing’s “Eleemosynary,” which opens tonight at South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage and will run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through July 14. A special matinee performance July 8 will be signed for the hearing-impaired.

Tonight’s gala marks Stop-Gap’s 11th anniversary with a pre-show dinner and post-show afterglow to honor the group’s volunteers and supporters.

“Eleemosynary,” a lyrical drama about three generations of women, is not as blatantly issue-oriented as the dozens of workshop productions that Stop-Gap takes to schools and community organizations each year (“When No Means No” on date rape, “His Brother’s Keeper” on AIDS and “Under Pressure” on drug use).

Though Stop-Gap’s productions are always provocative, said Kymberli Kercher, who plays Echo, the youngest of Blessing’s family of women, “Eleemosynary” will be “like putting up a mirror.”

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“Not everyone can relate to someone who is handicapped or a drug user,” Kercher said, “but everybody had a mother.”

Laffoon likens “Eleemosynary” to a theatrical “My Mother, Myself,” Nancy Friday’s epiphany on mother/daughter relationships.

The daunting title, “Eleemosynary,” is a million-dollar word for charity or mercy, one that Echo memorizes in an effort to win a spelling bee--and her mother’s heart.

Language becomes a tool and a weapon for 15-year-old Echo as she struggles to communicate with her absent mother, Artie (Elizabeth Reilly). Echo lives with her eccentric but enlightened grandmother, Dorothea (Karlene Bradley), and the two have a bond that Artie can’t hope to share.

Spanning about 25 years in the lives of Artie, Dorothea and Echo, the play uses flashback and echoes of dialogue to reveal how the sins of the mother are visited upon the daughter.

In a departure from the script, Laffoon has directed the three actresses to remain onstage throughout the play, marking each character’s indelible influence on the other. The 90-minute show runs without intermission.

Playwright Blessing, best known for the Tony Award-nominated “A Walk in the Woods,” was in San Diego for the West Coast premiere of his new play, “Cobb,” at the Old Globe Theatre.

“Eleemosynary” began as a 10-minute scene, Blessing said, and was expanded through a commission by St. Paul’s Park Square Theater in his home state of Minnesota.

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“I had written about 14 straight roles for men and I sort of gave myself the assignment of developing roles for women,” Blessing said.

With the input of his wife, director and dramaturg Jeanne Blake, Blessing created three characters who “have to deal with what women have had to deal with through the centuries.”

Each character confronts the societal limitations dealt to their generation--constraints that ultimately influence their relationships to one another.

“I love to suggest to women that they come with their mothers,” Blessing said. The characters are so familiar that the women in the audience “may never speak to each other again,” he joked.

Despite the obvious message that the play holds for women, Blessing believes its appeal is universal.

“My father-in-law saw it and it really struck a deep chord in him,” Blessing said. He was crying when it was over. He got very involved in the lives of the women.”

Tickets: $12; $10 for seniors and students. Stop-Gap encourages patrons to purchase additional tickets to be donated to homeless and battered women’s shelters in Orange County. For more information call: (714) 648-0135. For ticket reservations call: (714) 957-4033.


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