If you take reasonably good care of yourself and avoid safes falling from the sky, you’ll win the consolation prize of becoming an orphan. It’s too late to settle your parental issues, but the ghost of your dead mother might at least offer a clue to some sources of your unhappiness.
Thus does Mary regard her elegantly dressed mom, Vi, as The Memory of Water gently, quietly begins. Mary is a successful doctor dealing with the amnesia of a current patient, but it’s her own memory that reveals itself to be unreliable as she tangles with her two sisters, Teresa and Catherine, through the course of playwright Shelagh Stephenson’s amusing slice-of-life drama.
Shakespeare & Company’s rollicking production puts it on the small stage of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theater, giving us a slightly claustrophobic sense of inhabiting Patrick Brennan’s simple country-house bedroom, in which all of the action takes place. The sea is close and coming closer, insists the emerald-lit figure of Vi (Annette Miller, nicely edging her I’m-in-charge spirit with denial). Soon it will consume the house.
Vi’s specter further confuses the already tenuous recollections the sister share. Teresa (Kristin Wold) sells homeopathic remedies, requiring belief in the memory of water. Mary (Corinna May) is too responsible a doctor to give credence to such twaddle. And Catherine (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) is too busy appropriating the memorable stories of her sisters to see beyond her own self-interest.
The banter crackles as stories pile up and secrets are revealed. Some of the jokes seem to have come from a punchline factory, layered on at the expense of character, but that’s actually a credit to the three actresses, who have delineated their contrasting natures so credibly that you’re sensitive to such nuance. Even their well-wrought dialects are shrewdly differentiated.
May’s Mary is thoughtful to the point of detachment, her world well-controlled until sharp-tongued Teresa finds the cracks in her armor. Even the second-act revelation, which also seems to have come out of a handy Playwright’s Surprise Kit, becomes emotionally affecting in her skillful hands.
One of Wold’s challenges is to convincingly play an arc of drunkenness, and she does one of the finer such jobs I’ve seen. Her character mirrors Mary in its layers of denial, but she realizes the characterization with brighter flashes of anger.
Catherine, on the other hand, is a loose cannon—younger, more emotionally honest, but screamingly self-destructive. The only reason Aspenlieder doesn’t steal the show with her captivating whirlwind is because the ensemble is so generous in supporting one another.
Mary has been having an affair with married doctor Mike for the past few years, and his arrival sparks more inter-sister tension. Nigel Gore has the challenge of giving an effective voice to a nice but conflicted guy in his own realm of denial, and he does so with charm and honesty.
Likewise, Jason Asprey makes the character of Teresa’s husband, Frank, a likeable guy who has put up all these years with a mercurial wife. By the end of the first act, the men are as astonished as we are by the fireworks of sororal bonding. If the hand of the playwright looms too deliberately just before intermission (hint: there’s choreography), it’s still a lot of fun.
The darker-hued Act 2, culminating in the day of the funeral, strips away what’s left of each sister’s public mask, even as they fight to claim one another’s recollections. Who got left at the beach? Who was locked in a cupboard? Major changes don’t inform the play’s resolution: It’s a peppering of shield-lowering and small revelations. Nobody is healed, despite the presence of so many putative healers, but at least they’ll be able to attend the funeral in relative peace.
Director Kevin G. Coleman clearly stressed the importance of ensemble work, and much of the joy, as this semi-tragedy unfolds, lies in losing the awareness that you’re watching actors at work. Stephen Ball’s lighting is effective in heightening character and underscoring mood, especially when the elusive Vi is onstage. When you’re clearing out a house you deal with a lot of clothing—costume designer Kara D. Midlam must have had a field day assembling the time- and character-appropriate array.
The Memory of Water is a memory of words, words that charm and anger and soon evanesce. Forget what I’ve written here and go see the show.