The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson. Directed by Kevin G. Coleman.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Iím just sayiní. . . people die. . .you canít avoid it."
Corinna May and Kristin Wold; photo: Kevin Sprague
With a simple sentence about the inevitability of death and the need to deal with it, playwright Shelagh Stephenson sums up her play, The Memory of Water, gracing the Elayne P. Bernstein stage this summer at Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, Massachusetts. Three sisters, Mary, Theresa and Catherine come together to deal with the funeral of their mother, Vi, a woman whose sense of self has infused each of her daughters with a major lack of the same. Not that their individual egos arenít exposed to the fullest during this ordeal; in fact those egos are actually stretched to the breaking point before the funeral can finally begin. Each sister has her story and those stories are told, played out, and then retold in the more than two and a half hours it takes to complete the journey from "welcome home" to "bon voyage, Mama!"
Set, most likely, in the northeast coastal town of Tynemouth where the playwright was born, the regional performance contains a mixture of accents that scream everything from Dublin, Ireland to the East Anglia margins of Ripton in Cambridgeshire. This actually works, for the three sisters, basically estranged, live in remote locations and their menfolk do the same. In Lenox (Mass) the company of players bring much to the realizations of these obscure lives and while a day and a half in their darkest hours doesnít seem like an eternity, it does stretch into a nearness of that concept.
Thankfully, this play about death is devilishly funny. A tragi-comedy about loss and more loss without hope of redemption, the play is no less perfect than its southern American cousin, with three sisters convening to avert a tragedy, "Crimes of the Heart." It is a trifle too long, but not for this companyís playing which is sharp, quick and insightful. Still, it feels a bit long. I suspect that even the film version of this Olivier Award winner for Best Comedy, a Julie Walters starrer entitled "Before You Go" feels a bit long as well.
Corinna May plays Mary, the sister who lives away, probably in Ripton, where she is a successful doctor, too successful to devote much time to her ailing mother who lives 74 miles away on the coast. She has the greatest degree of sophistication and the smartest sense of style even though she wears nothing stylish and shows less pretense than her siblings. She presents us with a woman who can carry off a tiara and bath towel look as easily as her stretch pants pajamas. Her relationship with her mother, played masterfully in three scenes by Annette Miller, is at the core of the play and hands what would otherwise be an ensemble piece over to her character as a singular play about internal growth.
Miller is grandeur incarnate. In her own way she steals each of her scenes from her partner, permitting Mayís Mary to be a constant foil. For the playwright Vi serves as a stimulus to provoke change in this daughter who, on the surface, needs the least but in reality needs the most. Together the two women are incredible.
Kristin Wold plays the practical, managing sister Teresa. She is sharp, insightful, vindictive, relentless and often unnecessarily cruel. She mistreats both of her sisters, Maryís lover Mike, and her own husband Frank. In Woldís performance there is a tinge of candor as she riles up one after another of the characters around her. She throws stones that might be bones expecting reactions that might be fractions of emotions. Wold knows how badly her Teresa longs for subtlety and she shows us how impossible it is for Teresa to achieve such a goal.
Catherine, the youngest sister, is played with physical ferocity by Elizabeth Aspenlieder. Chalk this up to another terrific interpretation by this actress. Aspenlieder can play ditsy with purpose and purpose with irrationality better than anyone and make it all honest and believable. Catherine is Baby Doll; Catherine is Marilyn; Catherine is Kate the Shrew and Cleopatra rolled into one. What Catherine is not, however, is very likeable but somehow with her talents hammering away at this woman, this particular Catherine arouses our sympathies. Aspenlieder digs deep inside this woman and comes up with the reality of adult orphanage.
As Mike, the married doctor in love with Mary, Nigel Gore turns in a very realistic, funny and sympathetic performance. His is the least showy character, unless you count his almost nude scene. Gore handles Mike with kid gloves and that makes sense for this play really belongs to its women. Stephenson gives him a bad final scene and Gore makes what he can of it, but even Colemanís usually eloquent direction canít save the man or the character.
Frank, the husband of Teresa, is well played by Jason Asprey who proves once again that he is best at contemporary roles. He is totally believable and even rather charming as the man who persists in his lifeís track in spite of himself. He never has a bad moment in this role and as a result deserves a proper accolade.
Coleman truly gets the necessity of an open-space arena and he has taken advantage of the space to provide room for each character to grow and persist in Viís bedroom. He has clearly taken a major role in the interpretation of each character. The three women, for example - the three sisters, are very different from one another and yet seem to belong in a group, a living example for the see/hear/speak no evil monkeys. He has given his two men opportunities but held them in check so that they can never outshine their women. Small touches and comic physical actions, particularly in the drunk scenes and the clothes packing scene as played by Aspenlieder, are gems.
Patrick Brennanís set is sturdy and undistinguished which works for Tynemouth. Stephen Ballís lighting is just fine and Kara D. Midlamís costumes are just perfect, even those not worn by Vi in the performance. Congratulations and best wishes to Zachary Krohn, the stage manager and his intrepid staff who have to deal with perhaps a thousand props in each performance.
Long, but intriguing, joyful but dark, death-engaged but life-engaging, this play is an unusual experience deposited into the hands of a talented crew of players and technicians. It plays through the season and probably wonít get any better than it was on opening night, but with any luck and a little help from the stage manager it will never be anything less than what it already is, a delicious romp on the way to the grave.
Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Jason Asprey; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Memory of Water plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA, through September 4. For schedules, tickets prices and purchases, contact the box office at 413-637-3353.