Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Memory of Water

Checked out The Memory of Water last night at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA.) Going in I knew--or thought I knew--that this wasn't one of my favorite plays. I had seen it performed one other time before, and didn't really enjoy it. I thought it just wasn't my kind of play, where the story line is three women who rehash their lives and problems because of the death of their mother.

Having buried both parents, and having lived through the screaming matches that occurred between siblings, I guess I thought playwright Shelagh Stephenson just didn't quite get it right. What I realized after last night's performance was that it was the original production that hadn't quite gotten it right.

Still, there were times in the play where I found myself shifting in my seat, wishing for the characters to just get on with it. But more on that later. I think it had to do more with the portrayal of the dead mother, Violet, than the script itself.

From the second you walk into the theater you're drawn into Violet's bedroom. There is no curtain, per se, but clothes hang downstage and through the opening you see Mary asleep in her mother's bed. The voyeuristic quality is enchanting. Last night, Mary, played by Amanda Good-Hennessey, seemed to be sleeping peacefully while the audience filled the seats. On other nights I imagine she tossed and turned in her dreams.

The lights go down, come back up, and Mary's quiet sleep is shattered for the rest of the play.

The three sisters, (the other two are Teresa, played by Lyralen Kaye, and Catherine, played by Shawna O'Brien) each have pain as we all do resulting from less-than-perfect parents. Does this all sound familiar? The ensuing battle, entwined in sibling rivalry, is based in love and need and wrapped in humor. Be prepared to laugh. All the actors' Yorkshire accents with accompanying Yorkshire dry humor are spot-on, and frankly, some things on this side of the Atlantic are just funny or said funnier with a British accent.

Each sister has her moment to vent and purge, and each actress takes her turn with power and authority. Kaye (full disclosure here: Kaye is my acting teacher) is tender and vulnerable and drunk as hell at the realization that her marriage began with a lie. O'Brien displays her character's desperate need for love and her fear of being alone in the most passionate and heart-rendering way. Both characters face the truth about themselves and their lives, and in doing so show their core to the audience.

But it's left up to Mary, whose dead mother inhabits her dreams, to face her own demons and her life's dirty little secret with her mother's ghost. And here's my little complaint about the play: Violet is characterized as a sophisticated, almost Joan Collins-type character, not only a person who tried to extend herself beyond her Yorkshire background and upbringing, but actually succeeded in entering into a more glamorous life. But she really didn't, she lived out her life in a small town in a small house overlooking the sea, and her explanation to Mary about why she chose to make certain decisions regarding Mary's life seem almost plausible, even though they ruined Mary's life. If we were to see Violet as a failure, with questions now plaguing her, this might come across a bit better.

Still, Goodman-Hennessey's characterization of a person who must live with pain and regret is layered and multi-faceted, with her self-control barely contained as she searches for the one thing in the entire house she treasures.

Then there are the two men in these sister's lives: Frank, Teresa's husband played easily and with humor by Michael Steven Costello, and Mike, Mary's married lover, played with tension and an underlying layer of anxiety by Marc Harpin. Harpin and Goodman-Hennessey have an especially sweet moment in the second act when Mary gives Mike an ultimatum, and his answer seems to draw that line in the sand that all three sisters have ultimately crossed over.

WHAT: Way Theatre Artists present Shelagh Stephenson’s “The Memory of Water”

WHEN: May 16 – 31, 2008

• Friday 5/16 – 8 pm
• Saturday 5/17 – 3 pm & 8 pm (also: Press Reviews)
• Sunday 5/18 – 3 pm
• Wednesday 5/21 – 7:30 pm
• Thursday 5/22 – 7:30 pm
• Friday 5/23 – 8 pm
• Saturday 5/24 – 3 pm & 8 pm
• Sunday 5/25 – 3 pm
• Thursday 5/29 – 7:30 pm
• Friday 5/30 – 8 pm
• Saturday 5/31 – 3 pm & 8 pm

WHERE: Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St, Boston

TICKETS: $14-$28 (certain discounts available)

Available online at or by phone at 617-933-8600 or in person at Calderwood Pavilion Box Office
527 Tremont Street\
B.U. Theatre Box Office
264 Huntington Avenue

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