Memory Loss

Quality performances can't save this trivial play.

click to enlarge SISTER SISTER: (From left) Dawn Truax, Eileen Koteles and Amy Ragg play three sisters reunited in The Memory of Water. - Petrus Antonius
Petrus Antonius
SISTER SISTER: (From left) Dawn Truax, Eileen Koteles and Amy Ragg play three sisters reunited in The Memory of Water.

You can see this one coming even before the curtain rises. All you need is to hear the premise: Three sisters convene for the funeral of their mother. The rest is pure logic (and familiarity with the theater): There'll be arguments and reconciliations and mixed memories of Mom. There'll be personal revelations and tears and shared laughter. We'll hear the lowdown on their men, on their sex lives, on their strayings. And at the end, after all the confessions and recriminations, this band of sisters, these happy few, will unite in celebration, sadder but wiser, bloodied but unbowed. And this is the audience's cue to marvel at the wonder that is Family, that is Life Itself. Call it formula, call it cliché. This one we know before it starts.

And still Shelagh Stevenson, the author of The Memory of Water, manages to find a little originality in and around the inevitable. For one thing, she actually shows us two of the men folk who matter to her heroines, so we get to judge them for themselves, not just on hearsay. And there's a certain modernity when the obligatory liquor — necessary to get lips a-flappin' — is supplemented by marijuana. There are even some unexpected conversations between a live daughter and dead mother, conversations with the sort of resonance that the rest of the play lacks.

But these departures from the predictable aren't nearly enough. For the most part, The Memory of Water is just one step beyond soap opera, with a love triangle, the need for a mate, and even teen pregnancy as its preferred subjects. How can Mary be pregnant when Mike has had a vasectomy? Will Mary find the lost son whom she years ago gave up for adoption? Will Catherine ever find the man who will stay with her through thick and thin? What about Teresa and Frank's health-food business? Can it endure Frank's disaffection? Do we really need to know? Do we care?

Nevertheless, there are those talks between daughter Mary and deceased mother Vi. When these two are on stage, the stakes get raised, the audience implicated. Now the subject is every child who ever denied her own parentage, or who refused to acknowledge her parent's human needs. "You thought your feelings were too rarefied to share with me," says Vi. "You count me out. You looked straight through me." But Mary's not so unique as she imagines. "Why can't you see it?" asks Vi. "Everyone else can. Look at the curve of your cheek, look at your hands, the way they move. You're doing it now. That's me." Too much of The Memory of Water is trivial and overly familiar, but these brief exchanges between Mary and Vi touch us deeply with their honesty. If more of the play were of this quality, it would really matter.

As it is, it's mostly a vehicle for actors — the three main women, especially — to show their chops, to cry and laugh and rant and seethe, to act stoned and drunk and emotionally wrung out. And this Stageworks production does offer some fine acting, though we never really have the sense of an ensemble. Part of the problem may be R. T. Williams' expansive bedroom set; something more closed and claustrophobic might have forced the performers to truly enter each others' orbits.

But even isolated in the crowd, most of the thespians here turn in memorable work. Best of all is Dawn Truax, who as Mary is the dominant personality on stage, a doctor who can't heal her relationship with married Mike, can't persuade him to want a child, or to leave his supposedly sickly wife. Truax's Mary is a complicated, deeply sensitive woman who alone among the characters actually changes before our eyes, and who seems, at the end, to represent the author's chilly stoicism.

Also excellent is Eileen Koteles as Teresa, a sharp-tongued, whiskey-swilling fireball who resents her parents, her sister Mary, her husband Frank and just about everyone else she can think of. Koteles' Teresa is one of those people whose power stems from their willingness to say anything at all, no matter how private or embarrassing.

As sister Catherine, Amy C. Ragg easily convinces us that she's been dumped by all 78 of the men she's slept with, and that she's nonetheless willing to try her luck with the next 78. It's not Ragg's fault that her big speech about loneliness seems perfunctory in a play of this kind; in any case, the performer carries it off with persuasive emotion. And Midge Mamatas as (deceased) mother Vi at first seems distant (as a dead person would) and then, surprisingly enough, comes to win our respect. Only a very talented thespian can make that transition with so few lines.

There are also two men in the show: Teresa's husband Frank, played by Richard Coppinger, and Mary's lover Mike, played by Petrus Antonius. I've been watching Coppinger's work for many years now, and I think this may be most impressive role he's ever done. He has the difficult task of convincing us that he's equal to his swaggering, furious wife, that he's not afraid of her, not subjugated to her, and that he and she share a love that's not disturbed by her emotional excursions.

Coppinger accomplishes this and more, while making us laugh and winning our affection. Antonius as Mike isn't quite as successful; particularly in the first act, he seems out of synch with the other characters. But he's just right in Act Two, and is especially good at playing Mike's ambivalence about leaving his wife.

Anna Brennen's direction is strong in individual cases, weak where a sense of the group is concerned. And Robin New's colorful costumes are especially notable when the sisters sift through their mother's wardrobe in search of the good, bad and ugly.

Alas, the play to which all these artists have contributed is mostly trivial. I've seen sitcoms that were deeper, brief one-acts with more ideas. The best play with a similar theme (the sisters reuniting, not the funeral setting) is Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart. And not too terribly different is Kim Hanna's Hypoxia Zone, presented by Stageworks only a few seasons ago.

Both of these plays have far more virtues than anything in The Memory of Water. Both have originality. I'd gladly watch either of them again.

I can't say the same about this trite and tired Memory.

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