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The family ties that bind
FPT’s Eleemosynary examines complicated family relationships
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Thom Hofrichter, Artistic Director of the First Presbyterian Theater, is concerned that theater-goers might be put off by the theater’s production of Eleemosynary, the award-winning play by Lee Blessing.
It’s not the play’s subject matter, which deals with the tangled relationship between three generations of women from the same family.
And it’s certainly not the ability of the cast; Hofrichter, the director, recognized early on in rehearsals that the three actresses who portray the family members had something special happening. “This is going to be a really good piece of theater. I say that with all humility, and not due to any brilliance of mine,” Hofrichter laughs. “These three women are really meshing very well.”
No, the proverbial “big elephant head” in the room is, of course, the play’s title. “My biggest worry is ‘err, Ele-what?’” Hofrichter says. “It would be a damn shame if people didn’t see the show because of that.”
So, eleemosynary means charitable, the giving of alms. In the play it’s the word the youngest Wesbrook woman, 14-year-old Echo, spells to win the National Spelling Bee, but charity and forgiveness are also the central themes in Eleemosynary. “Charity is not just what we give in terms of money, but also how we treat other people, especially family members,” Hofrichter says. “For some reason, we tend to be able to forgive and be charitable to our friends and forgive their weaknesses and shortcomings, but we have a harder time doing that with our families.”
Forgiveness and charity might be a tall order among the three generations of Wesbrook women in Eleemosynary — grandmother Dorthea, her daughter Artimus (“Artie” for short), and Artie’s child Echo. “There are always dynamics in every family, and I think the closer you are in relationship to one another, the more you try to separate as much as you can so we can form our own identity, particularly if we have an affinity to being like that parent,” says Molly McCray, who plays Dorthea. “You push back when you get too close, just so you can maintain your own identity, but all the while you’re fighting something you’re probably never going to get away from it. It’s like a boomerang; you will come back and become that person you’re trying not to be.”
Dorthea, the eldest Wesbrook, has cultivated eccentricity as a means of self-expression. “Dorthea has led a very rigid life,” says McCray. “She wanted to be a very educated, intellectual person, but because of the time which she was born and raised, the only way she’s been able to express herself and break away from the role of wife and a mother is be a little kookoo. By being an eccentric, she can do all sorts of things that society wouldn’t allow her to do. That’s her protection.”
But daughter Artie (Gloria Minnich) is mortified by her mother’s behavior. Eccentricity is one thing; Artie sees Dorthea as just plain nuts. One of the first scenes is a flashback to the 1950s, with Dorthea outfitting a young Artie with “wings” so she can fly. “Artie is more based in reality,” Minnich says. “Her mother wants her to be in the clouds with her, but Artie wants to stay grounded, she wants to go unnoticed. Artie does everything in her power to mask her own eccentricities.”
In order to escape her mother’s larger-than-life personality, Artie runs away several times in her youth, eventually leaving her own daughter, Barbara (whom her mother calls “Echo”) to be raised by Dorthea. “Echo wants a relationship with her mother,” says Melanie Lubs, who plays Echo, the National Spelling Bee champ. “She tries to get her mother to realize ‘you’re good for me, I need you.’”
As Echo, Lubs had to learn a wealth of obscure words, like autochthonous, bijouterie, and deodand. “I actually had to go to the library to find some of these words,” Lubs says (“we’re all really brilliant now,” jokes McCray).
Hofrichter says that on one level, Eleemosynary could be seen as an historical look at three generations of women living in different times, and what is possible for each of them in society. Ultimately, however, he believes the play resonates most because of family and the triangles that make them love and hate each other at the same time.
“I think (audiences) will see nuggets of their own lives,” Molly McCray adds.
First Presbyterian Theater presents
Friday/Saturday, January 6 – 21 at 8 pm
Sunday, January 15 at 2 pm
First Presbyterian Theater
300 West Wayne Street