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New productions open at Mustard Seed and Stray Dog

New productions open at Mustard Seed and Stray Dog

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At the start of Mustard Seed Theatre’s “Eleemosynary,” an unhappy girl named Artemis (Kelley Weber) stands on a cliff, dressed in what looks like a flying squirrel costume. Her mother, Dorothea (Nancy Lewis), who has devised this screwball experiment, stands far below, urging her to jump and flap her wings.

Weber’s queasy expression says it all. It defines the mother-daughter relationship that the play follows over many years. Unfortunately, however, that first flash of insight is also the last one playwright Lee Blessing has to offer in his moody, self-consciously “poetic” drama.

In time, Artemis becomes a scientist with a daughter of her own, Echo (Austen Danielle Bohmer). Artemis gives Echo to Dorothea to raise, avoiding emotional and physical connections with both of them. Her idea of a mother-daughter phone conversation comes down to giving Echo, a spelling bee champ, hard words to practice.

Was the flying experiment that terrible? And if so, why does she trust Echo to Dorothea?

Under Doug Finlayson’s direction, Weber, Lewis and Bohmer give poised, well-modulated performances on the imaginative set, designed by Kyra Bishop and lit by Michael Sullivan. But Blessing scarcely makes angelic Echo, eccentric Dorothea and chilly Artemis into persuasive characters, let alone a family.

A second disappointing production, “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight,” just opened at Stray Dog. A thriller that owes a big debt to “Gaslight” (which the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staged in October), playwright Peter Colley puts his mentally fragile heroine, Jan (Angela Bubash), into an old, isolated farmhouse with iffy utility service. Uh-oh.

Jan’s husband, Greg (Jeff Kargus), says that the country is the best place for her to recover from her recent stay in a psychiatric hospital, even though Jan repeatedly tells him she hates it.

Then Greg’s domineering sister Laura (Sarajane Alverson) comes to visit, even though the women never got along. Jan might enjoy the company of George (Mark Abels, in a strong, genial performance), a nearby farmer — except that he keeps telling her ghost stories supposedly set in this very house.

Fine; this is not a play to take seriously. It’s a diversion, an exercise in style. But in this production, directed by Justin Been, style falters. Alverson seems to be in a play by Noel Coward, by herself; the other actors opt for something more natural. Either might work, but it needs to be consistent.

Rob Lippert’s run-down living room looks scary enough, right down to the mold stains on the walls. But take a glance through the big windows. Lighting designer Tyler Duenow keeps it pitch-black outside all the time, even when Jan is making breakfast.

Worst of all, it’s just about impossible to guess when the play is supposed to take place. Now? Or 1979, when it debuted? Jan’s leggings and slouchy sweater are up to the minute, but she makes tapes for her doctor on a cassette recorder.

Are these details? Of course. But in a play where style matters, details grow into major pluses — or problems. “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight” may not be a masterpiece, but it still deserves a little care.


‘Eleemosynary’

When • Through Feb. 21

Where • Fontbonne University Black Box Theatre, 6800 Wydown Boulevard

How much • $25-$30

More info • mustardseedtheatre.com

‘I’ll Be Back Before Midnight’

When • Through Feb. 20

Where • Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue

How much • $20-$25

More info • 314-865-1995; straydogtheatre.org

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Judith Newmark is the theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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