Mounted on the back wall of the set for Fell's Point Corner Theatre's production of "Eleemosynary" are two white, fabric-covered trapezoidal shapes. They turn out to be wings, created by an eccentric character named Dorothea, who is convinced that man can fly.
"The secret of flight lies in the assurance that we are worthy of flying," Dorothea says. Heavily weighted with metaphor, it's a typical line in Lee Blessing's feminist play about three generations of women in an intellectually gifted but emotionally challenged family.
Director Anne O'Reilly and her trio of actresses -- Kate Green as Dorothea, Lynne R. Sigler as Dorothea's daughter, Artie, and Michelle E. Conroy as Dorothea's granddaughter, Echo -- handle this sometimes stilted material with an effective, if deliberately stagy, approach.
The title is the word with which precocious Echo wins a national spelling bee. "Eleemosynary" means charitable -- though Echo's cutthroat competitiveness is anything but. What she's really competing for, however, is the affection of her mother, Artie -- a cold, distant research scientist who left Echo in her grandmother's care when the child was a toddler.
Sigler tends to overplay Artie's fed-up nature, though admittedly, she is strapped with the task of portraying the play's least sympathetic character. As a young woman, Artie ran away from her controlling but nonconformist mother; when she became a mother herself, she abandoned her child. Later, she suggested Echo compete in spelling bees, partly because helping her practice over the phone was the closest communication Artie could manage.
Throughout the evening Sigler rarely alters the crabby expression she wears when we meet Artie -- as the unwilling subject in one of her mother's flying experiments. But is Dorothea as unbearable as Artie believes? Colorful would be a better description, though for a daughter who merely wants a mother like everyone else's, maybe that's worse.
When she was a young, repressed housewife and mother, Dorothea tells us, she met a spiritualist who said: "The best thing about [eccentricity] is, no one holds an eccentric responsible." From that moment on, Dorothea was freed, and Green, an impressive newcomer to Baltimore theater, imbues her with the ideal endearing, gentle spirit.
Part of the point playwright Blessing seems to be making is that character traits sometimes skip a generation. Conroy plays Echo as a girl who worships and emulates her grandmother but also craves her mother's love and cannot understand the breach between the two most important women in her life. In this sense, Echo is more mature than her own mother.
"Eleemosynary" is a challenging play stylistically. The actresses are required to take turns as narrator. And they also portray wide age ranges -- Echo goes from infant to teen; Artie, from teen to middle-age; and Dorothea, from young adulthood to elderly stroke victim, and then from beyond the grave.
Director O'Reilly has staged the production with minimal scenery and welcome subtlety. Conroy and Green, for example, reinforce the similarity between their characters by wearing decorative scarves. It's the kind of small, understated touch that helps soften the hard edges of this less-than-sugar-coated look at motherhood.
"There's absolutely nothing the mind can't bend," Dorothea tells Artie. But it takes Echo, who combines the best qualities of her mother and grandmother, to realize that sometimes the heart can bend what the mind cannot.
Where: Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 18
Call: (410) 276-7837