Lee Blessing’s off-kilter playfulness and ability to humanize contemporary issues onstage have made his latter plays popular productions in American theaters. Blessing, best known for his imaginative interpretations of factual events, has examined everything from AIDS to nuclear arms to the life of Ty Cobb. Sometimes criticized for simply skimming the surface of these issues with his work, he tends to telescope his issues into a few, key human characters. Supported by an abundance of playful wit, his strength lies in his marriage of entertainment value to substantive dialectic.
Blessing’s work can be divided into two parts: his early work, characterized by realism and family drama, and his later, post-Walk in the Woods work, in which he primarily takes on current events. The earlier work, which also includes his strongest emphasis on central female characters, is less adventurous and therefore less remarkable, following linear structure and internal realism more strictly. The later work becomes increasingly imaginative, playing with form, theme, and character in a way his first few works do not.
His experiments with structure most often take the form of a sort of soliloquy in the style of William Shakespeare, in which characters alone onstage directly address the audience with narratives, commentaries, or character revelations. This soliloquy device is present in one form or another in almost half of his works. Through his entire body of work, Blessing’s fascination with nature as metaphor is evident, as his characters often digress into long descriptions of animal or insect behavior to illustrate certain metaphorical character points or bigger pictures. Other notable characteristics of his writing include a consistent seriocomic cleverness and a reliance on the symbolism of light and dark.
Blessing’s first play to really demonstrate his excellent command of language, Eleemosynary is the most successful of Blessing’s family drama works, an examination of how three generations of women use language and to what end. The three women use language—specifically spelling bees—to both connect and distance themselves from one another throughout the course of the seven-scene play.
Eleemosynary was written as part of a self-assignment on Blessing’s part to write plays with central female characters, as a reaction against a theatrical climate in the mid-1980’s that was still less than insistent on the need to portray strong women. His most successful effort to grapple with lead female characters, Eleemosynary resembles his earlier Independence in its structural use of three central females.
The play represents Blessing’s first real experimentation with structure. This modified narrative has the three women sometimes acting as storytellers and at other times as characters-in-the-moment, marking out a loose plot that spans the lives of all three. Blessing’s device of having characters break the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience is used to good effect here, as he examines the relationship between cruelty and love in families.
The three women in Eleemosynary are, in typical Blessing form, a celebration of idiosyncrasies, each bucking the terms of society in their own quirky way. An openly eccentric grandmother, a mother who leaves her daughter to pursue research, and a daughter who memorizes the dictionary to become a spelling champion all find solace in their ability to hide behind the artifice of knowledge.
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Lee Blessing often focuses on family dynamics in his plays. Eleemosynary, one of his most acclaimed works, is no exception. The play was first performed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1985 and published by the Dramatists Play Service in 1987; it forms part of the collection Four Plays, published by Heinemann in 1991. Eleemosynary won the prestigious Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award in 1997 for its penetrating study of the interactions among three members of the Wesbrook family. In his examination of their relationships with one another, Blessing illustrates the tensions that can stress a family to its breaking point.
Eleemosynary focuses on the lives of three Wesbrook women: seventy-five-year-old Dorothea; her middle-aged daughter, Artie; and Artie's sixteen-year-old daughter, Echo. Dorothea, an admitted New Age eccentric, has complicated the lives of the two other Wesbrook women by imposing her thwarted dreams on them, which has alienated Artie not only from Dorothea but from Echo as well. As the play begins, Echo is caring for Dorothea, who has just had a stroke. During the course of the play, Echo tries to bring the three women together. Blessing presents fragmented vignettes of the lives of the three women as they struggle to define themselves both as individuals and as part of a family unit. In this poignant and mature study of familial relationships, Blessing highlights the human need for connection and forgiveness.
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