As we celebrate 20 fantastic seasons at Cyrano’s Off Center Playhouse in 2012, it’s fun to look back at our first reviews of our work -- the original production of Eleemosynary in 1992. Eleemosynary is very special, as it was the first independently-produced play at Cyrano's Off Center Playhouse, with a rare reprise during our 20th Anniversary celebratory season in 2012.
Don't feel bad if you can't pronounce "Eleemosynary, " the title of the current production at Cyrano's Off-Center Playhouse. A scientifically unsupportable poll revealed that almost nobody else can either. But that's no reason to feel leery of playwright Lee Blessing's tale of three women. Blessing examines the lives of a mother, daughter and granddaughter, how each woman's choices affect the lives of the others. "Eleemosynary" is an adjective meaning "supported by or dependent on charity." It's one of the words the granddaughter learns in preparation for a national spelling bee, an event she participates in with the hope that it will reconcile her feuding mother and grandmother.
Blessing's dialogue is rife with lovely metaphors. In one monologue the grandmother describes what it feels like to live a life controlled by other people's needs. "It was like an asthma of the soul. I could never take a deep breath of who I really was." Later, when she finds a way to express her nature, she says, "Suddenly a great breath of happiness went down into my lungs."
Cyrano's Off-Center Playhouse's Jerry Harper said the play immediately moved him when he read it last year. "Although on the surface, it's a woman's play, Ifelt that this is something that speaks to men and women, " he said. University of Alaska Anchorage theater student Jim Cucurall had come to him with the play and wanted to direct it. "I just decided at that very moment, this is a wonderful play; we really must do it, " Harper said. The tricky part, he said, was finding the right actress for the granddaughter role. Harper felt that the success of the play hinged on getting that part. So he sat in with director Cucurall on auditions, and in walked one Cortney Carlson, the youngest of the girls trying out.
"She just instinctively went for the right line reading, " he said. "She really fits my definition of an actress." She got the part. It turns out her mother, Carol Carlson, auditioned for the grandmother role and also made the grade. Cortney, 14, is no rank amateur. She almost made the big leagues last year under contract with ABC television. She had a part on the sitcom "Davis Rules, " which stars Jonathan Winters and Randy Quaid. Although she was filmed in several episodes, just before the show went to air, her part was cut. According to her mother, Cortney's agent wanted her to stay in Hollywood and give it another shot. "But she said no, she'd had enough, " said Carol. "With Cortney it really is all about the work, whether it's community theater or working on a set. We were fortunate in that she got paid for every episode. So she's got a nice little trust." The mother|daughter acting team will be joined by Mara Brenner.
ELEEMOSYNARY, by Lee Blessing, will be presented by Cyrano's Off-Center Playhouse Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. until May 17. Tickets are $12, with a $4 discount for seniors and students. With Mother's Day near, some theater-goers will gladly note an alternative to the traditional Sunday brunch. The current production of Lee Blessing's "Eleemosynary, " presented by Cyrano's Off-Center Playhouse, provides a provocative and insightful examination of relationships between mothers and daughters and grandmothers. Be forewarned, though: While the picture that Blessing paints is often humorous and, in the end, uplifting, his palette contains darker hues than the rosy pinks or pretty pastels that decorate the sentimental cards in the Hallmark bin.
Blessing's play flouts convention in both form and content. His script employs multiple narration, flashbacks and flash-forwards, and even observations from beyond the grave to create a brutally honest portrait of three women connected by blood, spirit and, for the most part, a curious, unspoken need for one another.
Blessing's eccentric collection of females shatters the traditional warm, fuzzy notions about motherhood, child-rearing, education and success. In Blessing's world, none of these sacred cows escapes unscathed. Mothers do not always love their daughters or want what's best for them. Daughters sometimes run away from home. Sometimes mothers run away from home, too. Worse yet, when their parents' dreams turn out to be hollow, daughters fulfill their mothers' wildest expectations and become monsters.
Fortunately, Blessing brings his audience back from the brink through the character of Echo, the pubescent granddaughter played by Cortney Carlson. Echo's success is of a higher order: She discovers and demands the love that her mother, Artie (Mara Brenner), is unable to show or give. This transpires as Echo's grandmother, Dorothea (Carol Carlson, Cortney's mother) lingers nearby, a spirit tethered to a comatose body. Although each of the three actresses creates a fully credible and complex character, young Cortney Carlson, a ninth-grader, turns in the most accomplished performance. The role of Echo demands childlike vulnerability and the backbone for survival, and it tests Carlson's remarkable physical and emotional range. She is totally in control, both as the competitive imp who wins the national bee by spelling "eleemosynary, " and as the adolescent who displays wisdom beyond her years, grasping the meaning of the word and its application in life: charity for others.