Playwright Lee Blessing has joked in the past about his tendency to separate the men and women in his plays; it keeps them out of trouble, he has said.
One would expect differences between his all-male plays like "Cobb," the West Coast premiere that just closed at the Old Globe Theatre, and "Eleemosynary," the San Diego premiere that just opened at the Elizabeth North Theatre under the direction of the San Diego Actors Theatre. Not the least of the differences is that the three women of "Eleemosynary" have probably never heard of the Ty Cobb in "Cobb".
But the differences are not as striking as the similarities.
What interests Blessing in both plays is not action, so much as soul-searching. The characters address the audience. They discover that they are interconnected. When they pull at the ties that bind, they find that these are bonds that cannot be severed. They can, at best, be renegotiated so that the dynamics between the characters are less suffocating and lethal.
In "Cobb," three actors played the same man, baseball great Ty Cobb, at different stages of his life. In "Eleemosynary," three women play three generations of one family--grandmother, daughter-mother, granddaughter--who are so intertwined that at one they confuse their roles. The grandmother competes with her daughter to become mother to the granddaughter--and wins.
"Eleemosynary" did not garner raves when it had its New York debut last year. But it's not a play that lends itself to raves. It's a quiet and thoughtful play that is sometimes funny and sometimes sad.
It could be deadly in the wrong hands.
But fortunately, it is in the right hands with the San Diego Actors Theatre, a homeless local theater company that has been developing a reputation for quality productions in its five years of existence.
One of the elements that makes this production a winner is the San Diego debut of Mhari Frothingham as the granddaughter, Echo.
Frothingham, a newcomer from New Mexico, takes the vessel of her role and fills it to overflowing with energy, pathos and humor.
One could find preciousness in a child who seeks to reunite her warring mother and grandmother by getting them to watch her win a national spelling bee championship. But not in this portrayal. This child-woman is a fighter, a scrapper, a survivor. If her weapons are words (like the playwright's?), she uses them with as much ruthless determination as Cobb ever used to swing a bat.
The spelling bee, by the way, is how Blessing works the word eleemosynary, meaning "of, related to, or supported by charity," into the title.
Ann Richardson stumbles at times as the grandmother, Dorothea, but sounds, overall, perfectly and expansively at home in the part of a woman who has taken refuge in eccentricity from the disappointments of her life. Forced by her father to marry rather than to go to college, Dorothea, to the mortification of her daughter, spends all her time looking for ways to fly, to see through the earth, to talk to stones, to converse with animals.
Pamela Adams-Regan plays Artie, the daughter who tries unsuccessfully to escape from Dorothea by taking refuge in hard science. Because Artie copes by fending off intimacy, hers is the hardest character for an audience to feel close to; she does a credible job, but could do far more to suggest the emotions she has pent up inside.
The direction by Patricia Elmore, artistic director of the San Diego Actors Theatre, keeps the tension high by having these characters interact by look and gesture even when they do not address each other directly.
Elmore has also assembled a fine all-woman design team for this all-woman play--a nice touch that really goes the distance when you consider that she even housed the show in a theater that bears a woman's name.
Mary Larson's set, askew slabs with the look of concrete, suggest ancient ruins--the timelessness of this ancient battle among grandmothers, mothers and daughters. Alexandra J. Pontone's lighting keeps attention focused where it is needed. Marta Zekan's original music and sound design softens the battles with hints of lullabies. Ingrid Helton's costumes are simple, but appropriate: a buttoned up look for buttoned up Artie, bangles and flowing garments for Dorothea, jeans for Echo.
As in "Cobb," the weakest part of the show may well be the ending. There isn't much of a sense of conclusion in "Eleemosynary" beyond an acknowledgment for a need for reconciliation. It trails off more than it stops; the final words don't ring true.
But, as in so many Blessing plays, the journey is more important than the destination. This production makes it a journey well worth taking.
By Lee Blessing. Director is Patricia Elmore. Lighting by Alexandra Pontone. Set by Mary Larson. Costumes by Ingrid Helton. Sound and original music by Marta Zekan. Stage manager is Sue Schaffner. With Mhari Frothingham, Ann Richardson and Pamela Adams-Regan. At 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Sept. 16. At 547 4th Ave., San Diego, (619)268-4494.