Raleigh Ensemble Players
Through April 26

Charity takes the strangest forms in fairy tales. Moreover, it’s not always the easiest thing to spot: A locked box that no key opens, a small trinket in the shape of an animal, or a sewing needle that hangs, suspended under glass, by a single human hair. No convenient users’ manual accompanies these tokens, these hand-held riddles. When their real functions are finally revealed, the disclosures frequently uncover another secret: the true identities of the beneficiaries, often the offspring of their mysterious benefactors.

The metaphor is potent: Identity is received as a parent’s obscure gift. It remains encrypted for years after a decidedly cryptic charity has been given. And until the gift is unlocked, it primarily conveys the absence of something larger: a parent’s presence, or their love.

Lee Blessing doesn’t write fairy tales. Still, his pensive, nuanced play, Eleemosynary, probes the uncanny nature of charityand its unintended consequenceswhile examining the troubled mother-daughter relationships of three generations in the Wesbrook family.

Dorothea is a willful matriarch who deliberately embraces eccentricity at mid-life in a bid for liberation. For all that, though, she’s a lot more down to earth when she looks back on her problematic relationship with her daughter, Artemis. “We all try to be just right,” she admits, “just what the next one needs. And we never come close.”

Maybe the most fascinating thing about Blessing’s script is how clearly it delineates, in just over an hour’s time, not only these individual women’s responses to their world, but how those responses, perhaps inevitably, influence the trajectory of the daughters who witness them.

A girl-child viewed as inconsequential by a domineering family of old money in the 1920s sees her desires for higher education thwarted by an arranged marriageand vows that her daughter, Artemis, will have the best tutors money can provide. But Dorothea’s domineering, unilateral plan for Artie instills in her daughter an “asthma of the soul” similar to the one Dorothea herself has as a child, and propels Artie’s flight from home as a teenager and an adult.

After that escape, determined that her daughter, Echo, will never be devoured by a mother’s ambitions, Artie makes a drastic change in courseone which, by itself, inexorably reinforces much of what came before. Ashes to ashes; all fall down.

But in that child, Echo, an alchemy all its own is under way. She tastes, catalogs and savors a mountain of obscure words in a bid to be the best speller in history. Then she uses them to respond to her mother’s apparent disabilities and her grandmom’s caprices. Such magic words, in auspicious order, present new contextsand, with them, the possibility of healing.

We should be somewhat wary of this development. The redeeming child is, after all, the far too wishful trope of so many wounded families. But, at the end, Echo and her predecessors may just be assembling the collective genius of the heart that’s required to solve the riddle.

Director C. Glen Matthews’ discretion is evident with this talented cast; as usual in his work, the sense of ensemble here is palpable. Stage veteran Maggie Rasnick effortlessly conveys the irrepressible Dorothea, while Susannah Hough gets at the vinegar and reticence of Artie. Newcomer Laura Jernigan is simply winning as Echo, though her first monologues on opening night needed a bit more air at points to reinforce the sense of conversation with the audience. Her final declamations, however, convince us that transmutation of pain is possibleand that it’s only accomplished through an individual’s charity.