As far a first impressions go, the set design for Boise Contemporary Theater's Eleemosynary makes a lasting one. It is both subtle and striking in its minimalism. Arced white partitions of varying size are placed strategically toward the rear of the stage with a clouded sky painted in each. Audience members gazed blissfully into them, rapt, waiting for the show to begin.
The production has only three characters, making Eleemonsynary an excellent choice for the intimate setting of the Fulton Street Theater. It is the story of three generations of women and the complexities of their relationships. That description, coupled with a median audience age of around 60, initially made me wary, but the writing by Lee Blessing carries the production well beyond the parameters set up. Humor plays an enormous role, even in the most poignant scenes. It is dry at times and blatantly silly at others. Blessing even pushes the envelope with a line relating to smoking cigarettes and oral satisfaction.
All three women in the show delivered compelling performances. Their unifying characteristic is brilliance, which cripples them each in their own way. Kelly Balch takes on the challenging role of Echo, the youngest of the women. She is primarily an adolescent girl, but throughout the program, there are great leaps in time, putting her as a young child in a few scenes as well as an infant in another. She is also the primary narrator of the story, jumping in occasionally to share opinions or fill in details. Tracy Sutherland plays the part of her mother, Artie, a character seemingly incapable of displaying emotion and unwilling to cope with the realities around her. A good deal of Sutherland's scenes are monologues, due to her absence from the other characters, but her use of sarcasm and terrific facial expressions give her character life.
Lynn Allison as Dorothea, the grandmother, gives the greatest performance. She is madcap, wildly futuristic for her time and irrepressible. A self-described eccentric, Dorothea enjoys her quirkiness to its maximum potential. Allison truly embodies the character-she is graceful in her age and mannerisms, using sweeping gestures to demonstrate her ideas and boisterous enthusiasm for every ridiculous scheme she envisions. In Dorothea's world, there are no boundaries, even in her death.
Eleemosynary flows well through a complicated structure. Blessing's scenes involve two or all of the women at once, speaking from different time perspectives on the same topic. The transitions are smooth and easily followed. Throughout the show, the three actors are usually all on stage, yet they are not always in the same place or time.
Language holds a great emphasis in the story. Echo is a spelling bee champion, which is her only real link to her mother. She expresses herself through unheard-of words, stopping to spell them in spelling bee format. This foundation was heavy in the first 30 minutes of the show, more than necessary, as the multiple spelling sessions in her monologues became a distraction from the story itself. In other places, when used more sparingly, it suited its purpose better.
The show progresses rapidly, with humor on a regular basis and no drawn out scenes to fuel a wandering mind. The atmosphere is comfortable and informal, with many patrons enjoying a glass of wine or microbrew during the program. At the conclusion of the night, attending the performance to derive the definition of its title became the definite choice over consulting the nearest dictionary.
Eleemosynary by Lee Blessing
Directed by Ann Klautsch
At Boise Contemporary Theater, 854 Fulton St. (Fulton Street Theater)
8 p.m., May 7
Tickets $20-$25 at 331-9224; www.ictickets.com.