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It's a good word, eleemosynary--appropriate to the season, when people are lying in sleeping bags in front of sparkling store windows, lulled to sleep by the tintinnabulation of Salvation Army bells. The word calls to mind the essential goodness, the charity at the heart of this commercialized holiday. It reminds us of the importance of generosity and simple gifts.

In this time of big-budget holiday blockbusters, overladen with special effects and elaborate sets, Interplay's production of Lee Blessing's Eleemosynary dazzles with its simplicity and grace--one of those rare shows that make acting, directing, and writing look incredibly easy. The performers work so seamlessly with the script that we're amazed to realize by the end that in about 90 minutes the show has covered almost 80 years in the lives of three characters.

Eleemosynary is composed mainly of monologues and short scenes that trace the lives of three generations of women. Blessing's script weaves past and present, recalling key incidents and showing the development of each woman's life in relation to the others. At the beginning we are introduced to Echo (Martie Sanders), a young woman seated at the bedside of her grandmother Dorothea (Caitlin Hart), who has suffered a stroke. Echo's mother, Artie (Pamela Webster), left her long ago and now communicates with her daughter primarily through routine telephone calls, quizzing her for an upcoming spelling bee with tough words like "eleemosynary."

In this first scene we witness an event in the lives of these three women that serves as a beautiful metaphor for the themes of the entire play. Echo is watching a home movie in which Dorothea has fitted Artie with a pair of wings and is trying to teach her to fly. In this ethereal and humorous scene we learn of Dorothea's overwhelming ambitions and dreams, which she needs to experience vicariously through Artie. Artie in turn must escape Dorothea's domination if she is ever to achieve independence. And Echo establishes her need to fulfill her grandmother's impossible expectations and to justify her existence to the mother who left her.

By isolating the three characters, Blessing allows us to delve deeply into their lives and understand their struggles and emotions. We can understand why Artie decides to leave Echo with Dorothea and disappear for a while, and we sympathize with Echo's desire to prove herself in the national spelling bee. Even Dorothea's obsessions with flight and reincarnation are understandable and credible, given her world of lost dreams and failed expectations. Blessing never judges his characters or allows us to question their motives; he presents their struggles realistically and makes us accept them for who they are.

Under Dorothy Milne's direction, Eleemosynary is a small gem. The three actresses work beautifully together. Hart is thoroughly believable as Dorothea, capable of showing that character's refusal to quit under the most daunting odds. Webster's Artie is a wonderfully complex character, and Sanders's Echo is a magnificent creation, gliding effortlessly from the age of 1 to 15.

This production, performed in Interplay's small studio space, utilizes only three couches and a pair of wings, but we never forget for a moment where we are or what is happening. The play is marred only by a didactic feel-good ending that literally spells out the meaning of the piece. Otherwise Eleemosynary is simply a marvelous evening of theater.

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