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Girl Power

Viewing Eleemosynary is easier than spelling it.

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Watching the preview performances of a play can be a lot like watching an awkward public courtship. The human, scenic, and technological elements are all just beginning to get acquainted with one another and suddenly: bam! It's time for all the moving parts to sing and dance together in front of ticket holders.

Sometimes a preview is as polished as the show will ever be. Sometimes it's still ragged and searching for the magical thread that will sew up all the loose ends. Occasionally, but not often, these public rehearsals melt down completely and everything comes to a grinding halt while the cast and crew try to figure out what went wrong and what happens next.

That's exactly what happened last week when a short digital video with original music wouldn't play at the preview of Lee Blessing's quirky, 1985 one-act, Eleemosynary. The tiny audience (all three of us) waited 20 minutes while the crew at TheatreWorks scrambled to get everything right at least once before opening night. This isn't a complaint, by the way. It's context.

The only thing harder than performing comedy for an audience so small everyone's afraid to laugh for fear of becoming part of the show is performing comedy for that same audience after a false start and a long, soul-and-energy-sucking delay. But Karen Mason Riss, Leah Bray Nichols, and Olivia Wingate didn't seem to notice that their soundtrack music was missing. The stars of this lean, thoughtfully imagined show, about three generations of women with identity and relationship issues, didn't miss a beat. Any technological problems only served to highlight the fact that these three strong actors are the show's real attraction.

If you're not a wordy person you might not know that "eleemosynary" is a 10-cent synonym for "altruistic," specifically related to the charitable giving of alms. It's also the word Echo Wesbrook, the youngest of the Wesbrook women, spelled in order to crush the spirit of her opponents and win a national spelling bee. Echo, who is as precocious as she is damaged, takes care of Dorothea, her once willfully eccentric, now helpless 75-year-old grandmother while trying to build a relationship with Artie, the brilliant but neurotic mother who abandoned her.

"I have trouble touching my daughter," Artie confesses. "I have trouble touching most people," she says. Nichols lets Artie's guts spill all over the stage with the rare calm of a person who's made peace with the fact that she could fall apart at any time. She's vastly embarrassed by a mother who decided to be weird on purpose because key moments in her life were defined for her by men like her father and husband who kept her from attending college and pursuing a career.

Lee Blessing's never been a subtle political observer, and Eleemosynary's no exception to the rule, although there's something elegant about how the playwright shows past oppressions rippling through time and generations like a tsunami, gathering more and more destructive power as it moves away from the point of origin.

It's always exciting to watch young talent emerge, and Wingate, the Hutchison student who gave a breakout performance earlier this season as a troubled teen in August: Osage County, is even more compelling as Echo. Even the illusion of strength she projects is a little too convincing for a girl who suspects that she's somehow responsible for her mother's behavior.

As good as Nichols and Wingate are at negotiating Blessing's quirky, emotional minefield, this is Dorothea's show. The forceful family matriarch who talks to the ghosts of poets and presidents is too colorful to ignore, even in her deep, still, post-stroke silences. Riss is an unfussy actor, and her sincerity in the face of the playwright's strained contrivances keeps Blessing's dark comedy grounded in reality.

I was never able to see Eleemosynary's introductory film, so I don't know what it might do to emulsify a play that is too long at 75 minutes and redundant without being exactly repetitive. All I know is that I didn't miss it a bit.

At TheatreWorks through July 31st

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