Capsule Reviews

Eleemosynary Claude Debussy's impressionistic music is just the right accompaniment to Eleemosynary, Lee Blessing's dreamlike, amorphous three-character study on view at the Company OnStage. And so are the evocative swaths of blue and fuchsia that wash across the set's netting-draped flats, designed by director John Wind. Also spot-on is Patricia Shiro's costuming of the play's characters, three Westbrook women. Eccentric grandmother Dorothea is layered in chic peasant garb and has an aging-hippie pigtail braid; her emotionally stifled daughter Artemis is all buttoned up in a confining pantsuit; and Artemis's brainy and emotionally mature teenage daughter Echo is dressed like a goth vamp, wearing black lace and purple fingernails. In this gentle play full of remembrances and subtle recriminations, the layers that constitute that universal mother-daughter conflict are deftly peeled away. Each woman wants something from her mother that Mom can't give. "We try to be what the next one needs," Dorothea explains. "We never come close." To set herself free from her own mother's suffocating blandness, Dorothea has chosen to become the town's dotty old lady. Artemis is haunted by a previous teenage abortion, and she abandons her own daughter Echo, as well as stifling Dorothea. As for Echo, she just wants her mother back -- and to be the national spelling bee champion. That not much is revealed underneath all this intergenerational drama is certainly not the fault of the cast, which handles Blessing's quirky take on humanity with insight. The actresses manage to make us believe these three actors are actually related. Karen Schlag is chock-full of life and sparkle as intelligent Echo; Pam Lindsay brings quiet comedy and dignity to kooky Grandma; and Marianne Lyon, in the difficult role of brittle Artemis, is all pent-up breathlessness and steely resolve. Eleemosynary showcases beautiful ensemble work from all three. Through May 8. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219.

In the Garden of Live Flowers After the second scene of In the Garden of Live Flowers, a fantastical take on the life of environmentalist author Rachel Carson, wild insects from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland buzz and screech across the stage. There's a gnat, a Bread & Butterfly, a dragonfly, a caterpillar and even the White Rabbit. It's like a children's theater nightmare come painfully alive, and you pray for a noxious spritz of DDT to waft through Main Street Theater. But then, curiouser and curiouser, this "Fantasia on Rachel Carson's Silent Spring," as writers Attilio Favorini and Lynne Conner's subtitle states, begins to beguile us with its hallucinogenic mood. The play covers a lot of ground: Carson's fight to finish Silent Spring, her tome about the dangers of pesticides, before breast cancer claims her; her enlightening love of nature; her battles with corporate power; her growing celebrity status; her relationship with the married Dorothy Freeman; her youthful fascination with Lewis Carroll's Alice. It's told chronologically using passages selected from her writings. However, except for the quiet, thoughtful time she spends with Dorothy, each scene is given some surreal eccentricity, as if Carroll, the Saturday Night Live team and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove co-wrote the play. Shannon Emerick enlivens the schoolmarmish character of Carson, portraying her loving human heart and survivor's determined courage. She captures Carson's enthrallment with the world around her and her willingness to sacrifice for her cause; and, like the beloved writer herself, she displays a quiet yet powerful bearing. Leigh Anne Wuest plays both Alice and Dorothy, and though she's much too old for Carroll, she could charm the brilliant old lecher nonetheless. The scenes between Wuest's Dorothy and Carson are understated, written in a subtle shade so as not to scare the children, it seems. The women's 12-year relationship was far more passionate than the writers let on here. Aside from this flaw in the script, the production is excellent. Director Ilich Guardiola maneuvers surely and briskly through all the play's grotesqueries, but he also knows when to slow down to smell the flowers. Through May 2. 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706.

Mornings at Seven Paul Osborn's small-town comedy-drama Mornings at Seven, which is playing at Theatre Southwest, starts off like a Hallmark card, only to leave you with paper cuts by curtain's fall. The play is redolent of screen doors, aprons, flowery house dresses and marcelled hair (all splendidly realized thanks to Salle Ellis's costume design and Walter Urban's cushy lighting). There's a lot of small talk and gossip among the work's four sisters, who live in close together: three next door to each other, with Esther just down the street. But the play's Americana nostalgia, evoked so strongly at curtain rise, subtly starts to sour once we get to know these people, turning quite poignant at fade-out. Loneliness and aging permeate the play, adding a very real human layer to the odd characters. Like Uncle Carl (in a multitextured performance by Gene Griesbach), with his frequent "spells" of inadequacy and feelings of failure, everyone begins to realize that "there are a lot of different ways to be alone." When the sisters unite to confront snobby David, who thinks his wife's relatives are "morons," they comically show how family members can unite against darkness, whatever their differences. The ensemble cast -- made up of Zona Meyer's heartfelt spinster Aaronetta, Salle Ellis's dry-as-a-cornstalk Cora, Beverly Hutchison's emancipated-and-relishing-it Esther, and Barbara S. Hartman's dim but loving Idais -- works well together, as do the play's middle-aged lovers, mama's boy Homer (a delightfully befuddled Cecil Trent) and his always optimistic fiancée of 12 years, Myrtle (a wide-eyed Victoria Beard). Set in 1922 but written in 1939, Osburn's dark comedy competed at its premiere with such now-standard classics as The Philadelphia Story, The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Little Foxes. It lasted only 44 performances. We guess backyard drama with a kick didn't connect with pre-World War II Broadway audiences. But it connects now. Through May 1. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover