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Friday, May 18, 2012

Spelling Precocity, Part Deux: Eleemosynary

Posted By on Fri, May 18, 2012 at 4:15 PM

If the hardships, neuroses, oddities, hormones, and fractured usage examples of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee have you hankering for more hot orthography action, there is balm in Ballantyne. At the crossroads of Ballantyne Commons Parkway and North Community House Road, in an outdoor business/shopping mall that looks a lot like a motel, the new Ballantyne Theatre is serving up Lee Blessing's Eleemosynary. Up you go on the sluggish little elevator to the second floor, where the theater faces the veranda like a beauty shop or a doctor's office.

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No, Eleemosynary isn't a musical in the compact studio space seating around 50, and only one of the three Westbrook women we meet is a speller: nerdy Echo (nee Barbara) has been shaped by her stay-away mother and her space cadet grandma, but she's amazingly unwarped. As a speller, a finalist in the National Spelling Bee, Echo has game; and as a narrator, she has vocabulary.

The family's troubles stem from grandma Dorothea's willful eccentricities, a device she has used for her personal liberation. Her daughter Artemis, nicknamed Artie, is the pawn in these eccentricities, prevailed to don angel wings and goggles to prove Dorothea's contention than man — and woman — can fly. Eventually, Dorothea's overbearing weirdness drives Artie away. But as the younger Westbrooks gather around a failing, incapacitated Dorothea, it becomes clear that Echo has a taste for all the quirkiness that scarred her mother. Including those moldering angel wings.

Directed by Chip Caldwell, this Eleemosynary avoids the coldness of Charlotte Rep's 1990 production and the New Age vibe of the 2003 version by BareBones Theatre Group. The secrets to these changes are in the relatively straightforward design elements and in the portrayal of Artemis by Martina Logan. Previous interpretations of this pivotal role had the traumatized Artie cold and seemingly incapable of love — or, in her career of biochemical research, barricading herself from love behind a wall of rationality.

Logan gives us an emotional Artie, one who is afraid of loving her Echo because of what her own mother's love has done to her. Not only does this shift work well, it seems altogether justified — for we learn late in the drama that Artemis has sibling brothers, all of whom shun their mother more completely than she does.

Grandma and granddaughter are done more as I expected. As Echo, the director's daughter Kat Caldwell doesn't address us with the smooth self-assurance of a stand-up comedian or a gameshow host, but that's all to the good when we're taking in a maladjusted kid. Linda Healy Vespa can summon up the requisite sternness that is sometimes required of the domineering Dorothea, but she also understands that the secret of this crackpot's appeal isn't to be conjured up by bumbling or flapping around. Her secret is a slightly manic serenity, so winsome that you may wish to try on those angel wings yourself.

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