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April 8, 2010 at 11:10 am
By Collin Hazlett '12

Classes have resumed again, and with them, the flood of theater productions that unrelentingly entertains the student body from first week to finals.

One of this season's first plays was Lee Blessing's Eleemosynary, a Senior Integrative Exercise production directed by Rachel Simon '11.

Eleemosynary has only three characters (only three onstage characters, at least): Dorothea, Artie, and Echo, played by seniors Kristen Johnson, Liliana Dominguez, and Chasya Hill, respectively. They represent three generations of women in the Wesbrook family: Artie is Dorothea's daughter and Echo's mother. The play is a nonlinear retelling of their family history.

And what a family history it is. All three of them are blessed (or cursed) with nonstandard minds. Dorothea is an eccentric who tries to build motorless flying machines and contact the spirit world. Artie has total memory recall, which might sound like a good thing at first, but it means that she can never forget anything, which makes it hard for her to deal with guilt. Echo is a word-lover, who can give the spelling, derivation, and definition of words like eleemosynary, and many more besides.

Artie is far more logical and practical than her mother, and is scarred by an experience in her youth when her mother made her a pair of wings and told her to jump off a wooden bridge and fly. Before the performance began, while the audience was getting settled and waiting, an actual video imitating Dorothea's homemade film of this event was projected onto a curtain over the stage, showing Dorothea gesturing dramatically as Artie tentatively flaps her wings.

Dorothea has more hopes for Artie than merely human-powered solo flight: she wants Artie to use her superb mental abilities to become a famous researcher in some field. A few complications are thrown into this plan when an older Artie conceives Echo out of wedlock. Dorothea tries to persuade Artie that keeping the child would destroy her career and that abortion is better, but Artie disagrees, and runs away to have her child elsewhere. Artie becomes a biochemistry researcher and gets happily married, and it looks for a while as though she is going to be able to live a normal life, but her husband dies, and Dorothea moves in to help take care of Echo. Unable to deal with the unhappy memories raised by the presence of her mother, Artie leaves Echo to Dorothea's hands and moves to Europe.

The rest of the play concerns Echo's childhood being raised by her grandmother away from her mother. Dorothea is happy to see Artie become a cutting-edge researcher, but Artie feels guilty about being absent from her daughter's life. As a teenager, Echo tries to bring her mother and grandmother together at the National Spelling Bee, but that is the climax and I won't spoil the play for you any further.

Chasya Hill did an amazing job of playing Echo in all the stages from infancy through teenagerhood. For obvious reasons, it's a challenge for a college-age actor to convincingly portray a baby. But Chasya Hill did exactly that, with the jerky arm-and-leg motions, fascinated eye movement, curious chewing on things, infant noises, etc. that an actual baby performs. Then, because the play was nonlinear, she might suddenly become a young teenager again and be enthusiastically talking about etymology, with the smoothest transition in the world.

Liliana Dominguez's Artie brought a sort of sanity and worldliness to the table that the other two characters, one being eccentric and the other being young, didn't have. Her character had to be, on one hand, very resourceful and independent and, on the other, very vulnerable to guilt, and she managed to get both sides across very well.

Kristen Johnson's Dorothea had to be a multi-sided character: the eccentric, the loving grandmother, and the perhaps-overly-controlling mother. We had to see her both as Echo saw her and as Artie saw her, which Kristen Johnson let us do, by being neither a total saint nor a total lunatic. Plus, the character of Dorothea is hilarious, and that was fully expressed in this performance.

All in all, it was a well-acted and well-directed play, and one that I think combined the intelligence, humor, willingness to tackle serious issues, and eccentric spirit on which we pride ourselves at Carleton.