Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Spacetime Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Once Upon a Time... Josephine Baker

Katie Tuminelly, Tara Borman, and August Chaffin
Photo by Rich Fleischman
The word eleemosynary doesn't come up in everyday speech, but it is a word in the English language. It means relating to charity, or given in charity, such as alms. In Lee Blessing's play Eleemosynary, the word has special value to Echo, one of the three Westbrook women representing three generations who make up the play's entire cast. Echo does have appreciation for the word's meaning and for the quirkiness of its sound–both of which she finds delectable–but for her, the word's value primarily stems from the fact that by spelling it she became the National Spelling Champion. By doing this, Echo hopes to prove herself to the play's other two Westbrook women–her mother, Artie, and her grandmother, Dorothea–that she can be great by doing something "normal," without submerging herself in a sea of eccentric and impossible projects, like her grandmother, and without running away from her greatest source of strength, like her mother.

Blessing wrote Eleemosynary in 1985 as a commission from St. Paul's Park Square Theater, and it has been widely performed since. Currently, it is the inaugural production being mounted by a brand-new theater company in the Twin Cities, called Spacetime Theatre. With three terrific performances and perceptive directorial attention from Christopher Kehoe, Spacetime's founder and executive artistic director, this brash start up–their tag line reads "Just a little Twin Cities theatre company with some galaxy sized dreams"–has taken flight with a hit.

At the onset of Eleemosynary, Echo has attained glory as the spelling champion, but she is keeping vigil over her adored grandmother, Dorothea, who lies silently in a hospital room after suffering a stroke. The play is unspooled in a series of flashbacks which Blessing has deftly ordered and scripted so that in due time the unruly-shaped puzzle pieces form a coherent picture. The snippets we see in each scene are, in the main, very funny bits, prompting an abundance of laughter, so it takes us by surprise when we begin to understand how moving the truth of the narrative has become.

Times being what they were, Dorothea was thwarted in her ambitions of becoming a researcher and scholar, but finds a marvelous way around mid-twentieth century gender norms: eccentricity! She is awakened to the fact that one who is labeled an "eccentric" can get away with anything, including fool's errand projects, like insisting that her daughter Artie (from her given name, Artemis) can actually fly using fabricated wings fastened with straps to each arm, and humiliating Artie with repeated public demonstrations which, of course, never get off the ground.

Her mother's eccentricities and the resulting humiliation, as well as Dorothea's exercise of control over every aspect of her daughter's life, prompts Artie to seek a separation from her mother and embark on a life apart. However, when Dorothea learns that Artie is pregnant and that there is a third generation of Westbrook women, she bounds back into Artie's life to assume full control over her granddaughter, Echo, driving a wedge between the mother and child. Competing in the spelling bee is actually Artie's idea, as a bridge by which she and her daughter can have contact through Echo's love of words.

Intermingled with Dorothea's eccentricities are a great many points of wisdom and even a kind of logic, albeit logic that is always configured to prove her point. For example, Echo asks her grandmother about Artie's inability to deal with change, and Dorothea tells her that Artie has never been able to accept the breaking of life's rules. When Echo responds, "and you like to break rules!" Dorothea insists that she is not a rule breaker, only that she is following rules that haven't yet been discovered.

The dynamics among the three generations of Westbrook women bring to the fore questions about what we must do to pursue our dreams, how those dreams connect to the dreams of the generations before and after us, and recognizing the hazy line between encouraging someone to reach their potential and pushing them toward your unrealized goals. It dives into the question of the part love plays in mediating these issues, as well as the tension that can arise between inheritance and free will. Blessing gives us a lot to think about, and director Christopher Kehoe draws out all of these unsettling questions without ever sacrificing the play's rich humor.

I had not seen the actor Katie Tuminelly, who plays Dorothea, before. The program states that she recently returned to the Twin Cities after many years away, and I do hope she plans to stay. Tuminelly is fully persuasive as her Dorothea charges headlong into the decision to live life as an eccentric, free of shame or embarrassment, spouting forth her circular arguments, and the unshakable belief that in foisting these upon first her daughter, and later her granddaughter, she is enriching their lives. Tuminelly conveys how impossible it would be to live with someone of Dorothy's temperament while making her an appealing character, and she delivers the numerous laugh lines with aplomb.

August Chaffin, playing Echo, exhibits a tremendous range of emotions. We see her delight in her grandmother's company (even as an infant), become a fierce, downright vicious competitor during the spelling bee, turn to brutal accusation toward her mother's life-long distance, and reveal a wounded yearning to establish closeness based on genuine feelings and not on achievements. Chaffin is very, very good. As Artie, Tara Borman has the difficult role of being a terse, tightly wound character ricocheting off the engaging energy fields of her mother and daughter. Borman persuasively reveals the pain that outpouring of energy inflicts upon her, the wounds she suffers, and the walls she has erected to prevent further damage to her psyche. All three of these actors convey both the bonds and the antagonisms of their fractured family.

The setting by M Curtis Grittner is appropriately spare, as called for in the playwrights instructions, providing spaces that serve as different corners of the characters' memories. Costume designer Jaclyn Mack has given each of these Westbrook women a very distinct look, and appears to have had a field day in creating a costume for Dorothea that seems to announce her eccentricity. Kurt Jung's lighting design provides varying shades and focal points that add immensely to the texture of each scene, and August Chaffin not only gives a great performance, but created the production's effective sound design.

While eleemosynary may have been a randomly chosen winning word for the National Spelling Bee as imagined by Blessing, I'd give better than even odds that his choice has something to say about healing the generational blisters of unmet expectations, imposed agendas, escape and abandonment. Eleemosynary means related to charity and to the giving of alms. Will these mentally muscular Westbrook women be able to remove their intellectual armor and approach each other with charity, to offer alms of genuine care and commitment? Eleemosynary doesn't offer any guarantees, but does set forth the questions and opens the door to possibilities. This is an excellent play, terrifically funny and keenly provocative, given a production that shines light upon its merits.

Eleemosynary, a Spacetime Theatre production, continues through June 23, 2024, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please visit

Playwright: Lee Blessing; Director: Christopher Kehoe; Scenic Designer: M Curtis Grittner; Costume Designer: Jaclyn Mack; Lighting Designer: Kurt Jung; Sound Designer: August Chaffin; Stage Manager: Matthew Wilhelm.

Cast: Tara Borman (Artie), August Chaffin (Echo), Katie Tuminelly (Dorothea)