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Great Falls
by Lee Blessing
Directed by Tom Kopp
West End Players Guild
April 9, 2016

Shannon Lampkin, Isaiah DiLorenzo Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Shannon Lampkin, Isaiah DiLorenzo
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Great Falls is not a happy play, and that’s an understatement. The newest offering from West End Players Guild is a two-person travelogue of a play that takes its audience on a tour not only of the American Northwest, but of its lead characters’ emotions and personal struggles. It’s a well-cast character study that does manage to evoke a few laughs, although for the most part its outlook on life is grim.

The characters here–a recently divorced man and his former stepdaughter–aren’t given names. They’re listed in the program and referred to in the play as Monkey Man (Isaiah DiLorenzo) and Bitch (Shannon Lampkin). In the wake of multiple infidelities and an acrimonious divorce, Monkey Man is eager to salvage his relationship with his ex-wife’s daughter, so he takes her on an impromptu road trip to South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana with the intention of revisiting the locations of his own childhood vacations, as well as having some serious conversations. Although his intent is to maintain a relationship, Bitch isn’t interested, at least at first. Through the course of the play, their journey takes them to a variety of well-known and lesser known locations, and some surprising truths are revealed. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that many of those truths are unpleasant, and the play’s revelations about the nature of the men and boys in Bitch’s life are more than a little disturbing. It has its lighter moments, but the overall mood is increasingly dark.

The interplay between the two performers is the highlight of this production. DiLorenzo portrays a determined, guilt-plagued Monkeyman, trying to maintain a sense of optimism and not quite succeeding, as he continually spars with Lampkin’s snarky, moody character who insists that Monkeyman call her Bitch. Their verbal sparring is the centerpiece of the show, and their journey from antipathy to empathy and beyond is compelling to watch.

The setting here is fairly simple. As usual for most WEPG productions, the production utilizes the stage and the area in front of it, with Stephanie Draper’s set framed by material suggesting a cavern of some sort. There’s a low-budget hotel room set on the stage, and a simple framework of Monkeyman’s car that is brought for several scenes, and a backdrop with projections representing the various landmarks the characters visit. The costumes, by Tracey Newcomb-Margrave, are well-suited to the characters, and Draper’s lighting is also effective.

This play is more than “not happy”, really. It can be downright depressing, with an ending that leaves more questions than answers. Themes of estrangement, loneliness, violence and assault are addressed in a matter-of-fact manner that can be jarring and relentless. Still, it does a good job of creating a mood and setting, and the characters are well portrayed.  Great Falls is not for all audiences, but it tells a memorable story.

Shannon Lampkin, Isaiah DiLorenzo Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Shannon Lampkin, Isaiah DiLorenzo
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Great Falls is being presented by West End Players Guild at Union Avenue Christian Church until April 17th, 2016.

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Eleemosynary
by Lee Blessing
Directed by Doug Finlayson
Mustard Seed Theatre
February 6, 2016

Austen Danielle Bohmer, Nancy Lewis Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Austen Danielle Bohmer, Nancy Lewis
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Eleemosynary is an exploration of the unconventional in the story of three generations, a non-linear story that’s a study in emotions and relationships. It’s a fascinating play, now on stage at Mustard Seed Theatre. Lee Blessing’s story of family, estrangement, eccentricity and love of language and life is presented with spirit by a first-rate cast.

It’s a fairly straightforward premise, but then the story veers on flights of fancy through various times in the lives of young spelling bee champion Echo (Austen Danielle Bohmer), her mother Artemis or “Artie” (Kelley Weber), and grandmother Dorothea (Nancy Lewis), with whom Echo has lived for most of her life. At the play’s outset, we learn that Dorothea has had a stroke and has been hospitalized, necessitating Artie’s return. The story jumps around, recounting tales of Dorothea’s chosen life of eccentricity and its effect on the sensitive, increasingly distant Artie, who has difficulties relating to her mother and her daughter.  Although the story is by no means linear, it’s not confusing, either. It’s structured in a way that highlights the eccentricity of its characters as well as majoring on the emotional connections between the characters.

With such an emotional story and complex characters, casting is essential in a play like this. Mustard Seed and director Doug Finlayson have assembled a talented, fully invested cast to tell this story. As the word-obsessed Echo, Bohmer adeptly portrays the character’s intelligence as well as her sensitivity and underlying sense of determination and hope. Lewis is also memorable as the willfully unconventional Dorothea, allowing the audience to see her stubbornness as well as her optimism. Weber, as Artie, gives a masterful performance, displaying the sensitivity and fear that lead to her estrangement from her family but also displaying a real sense of caring and desire for connection, despite the fear.  All three performers work together well, showing a believable family relationship that is the heart of this production.

The set, by Kyra Bishop, is a colorful, whimsical multi-level unit that provides an ideal space for the many shifts in time and place that occur in the story. Michael Sullivan’s lighting also contributes well to the overall atmosphere of the play. Jane Sullivan’s costumes perfectly suit the characters, from Echo’s bright-colored overalls to Dorothea’s more eclectic attire, to Artie’s more subdued, conventional fashion.

Eleemosynary is a richly told story that focuses on self-expression and multi-generational relationships. It’s a vivid portrayal of three fascinating characters, raising many thought-provoking questions. Mustard Seed has brought it to the stage with style, energy, and heart.

Kelley Weber, Nancy Lewis Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Kelley Weber, Nancy Lewis
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

 Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting Eleemosynary at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre until February 21, 2016.

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