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A CurtainUp Review The Memory of WaterThe action of The Memory of Water revolves around a funeral. The chief mourners are three sisters with little in common except that they all still live with the unhealthy legacies of their childhood with the mother they've come to bury.
Teresa (Suzanne Bertish) is seemingly content with her second marriage and health food business though an obsessive over-organizer. Mary (J. Smith-Cameron), is a vaguely discontented successful doctor with an equally successful lover Mike (David Hunt), who is, alas, married. Catherine (Seana Kofoed), is the youngest and most immature who binges on shopping for inappropriate clothes, go nowhere love affairs, and drugs. There's also the about to be buried mum Vi (Robin Mosley). This ghostly vision in green tafetta is visible and audible only to Mary though her influence and demand to be understood rather than buried and forgotten is driving the oldest and youngest sister as well.
A ghost story? Not really. A tragedy? Yes, in that all daughters and mothers who fail to successfully navigate the troubling shores of love and antagonism also tend to fail in establishing healthy and enduring connections with sisters and lovers. A comedy? Yes again. Laughter is as much a guest at this funeral as grief.
One of the biggest laughs is provoked by the oldest sister Teresa's husband Frank (Peter McRobbie). Teresa, who's temporarily abandoned her health food regime to take more than a few drinks (as well as puffs from her younger sister's reefer) has thrown the already tense family group into a dither by bringing sister Mary's long-buried past into the present. This rouses the usually docile and silent Frank to declare "I hated Hannah and Her Sisters. I hate Woody Allen.". What he really hates is his life, and particularly his marriage, which began with a date on which he pretended to like the movie.
But while Frank may hate Allen's classic, Stephenson's funny and often affecting tragi-comedy might well be deemed a homage to it. Within the narrower framework of a couple of days (Hannah stretches over three Thanksgiving gatherings) and the single visual focal point of the dead mother's bedroom (Hannah roams all over Manhattan), Memory echoes that movie's primary theme: The attempt by three sisters to deal with the fallout of their shared but differently remembered family history.
While there are other bits and pieces to validate this idea of homage, Memory is very much born out of Ms. Stephenson's own viewpoint and voice. It is a viewpoint which ties these women's choices in life styles and men directly to the patterns growing out of the troublesome maternal tie -- the unconscious gestures, the knotty antagonistic love that needs sorting out along with the clothes in Mum's armoire. It is a voice that expresses itself with dialogue that has genuine sparkle ( especially the "gallows humor" lines) and that brings off the contrivance of the ghostly Vi while relegating the less successful dramatic devices to minor annoyances in a promising debut by a new playwright. One character declares early on in the play, "all memory is false" but your memory of this play will be more of its strengths than its weaknesses, its thought-provoking ideas rather than its cliches (i.e.: a tin that's a Pandora's box holding a long ago secret, a ticking biological clock, unreliable lovers, an extended drunk scene).
No small measure of this New York premiere's success, (the play opened in London in 1996 and was produced at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater), is due to the outstanding six-member ensemble and the impeccable staging and direction. While J. Smith-Cameron is the pivotal sister of the trio, the one who takes the most visible step towards taking a giant emotional step forward, Suzanne Bertish and Seana Koford do outstanding work as the controlling Teresa and the manic Catherine. David Hunt as Mike, Mary's married television doctor boyfriend and Peter McRobbie as the puppet-husband who displaces his rage at his wife on Woody Allen, turn their minor roles into major achievements. That leaves Robin Moseley. Her lively and oh-so-reasonable Vi turns a character who might easily be an old B-movie stereotype into a real woman crying out for understanding.
The crafts team works magic with the visual elements: James Noone's mauve pink flowery bedroom has a symbolic crack over the bed. Jess Goldstein puts robes to match the decor on a wall hook, fills mom's armoire with Vi's tacky party dresses for the one sisterly scene when instead of just packing things up for the inevitable post-funeral charity donations they play dress up and remember. She also fills Catherine shopping bag with aptly outrageous outfits, including a funeral outfit Teresa dismisses with "you'll look like Elton John." Donald Holder's lighting keeps the snow storm outside a subtly pervasive presence -- adding another dimension to the symbolism of water as part of our biological memory system (in this case lives frozen by false and unresolved memories). John Tillinger, blessedly given a more satisfying new play to work with than the recent Getting and Spending, keeps everyone and everything, moving forward with swiftly paced scenes, interspersed with the quieter and more thoughtful interchanges between Mary and Vi.
It's nice to know that Ms. Stephenson has just delivered another script to London's Hampstead Theater. With writers like her and Margaret Edson (Wit ) and Tracy Letts (Killer Joe ) perhaps Mark Twain's comment that reports of his death were premature can also be applied to the straight play.
Getting and Spending