The Memory of Water
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
By Albert Williams
"How confusing the beams from memory's lamp are," wrote Ogden Nash in his poem "Preface to the Past." British actress-turned-author Shelagh Stephenson--in her witty, poignant playwriting debut, The Memory of Water--visualizes memory as a cool, soothing light gently swaying on a bedroom ceiling. Steppenwolf Theatre's nearly pitch-perfect U.S. premiere--superbly acted under the direction of British expatriate Les Waters and played on a set designed by Waters's wife, Annie Smart--periodically calls up this ghostly image (with the help of lighting designer Christine Solger-Binder) to accompany visitations by Vi, the recently deceased mother of three middle-aged women reunited for her funeral. Returning to her old bedroom, with its crucifix still hanging on the cracked wall behind her bed, Vi is not the elderly Alzheimer's victim she was on her deathbed but a vital, sassy, flirtatious young woman.
Her daughter Mary is understandably perplexed by the dead woman's refusal to disappear. "You seem like nice, personable people," Vi says to her about the daughters she raised. "But I don't know what you've got to do with me." Mary, in turn, is only beginning to realize how little she knew her mother--and how impossible it is to escape her influence. "Have you finished?" she asks defiantly as Vi continues to criticize from beyond the grave. Vi's response is terse and telling: "Never." And anyone who's ever coped with the death of a parent will nod in acknowledgment of the profound truth of that statement.
Set in a house on England's northeast coast--the light on the bedroom ceiling is a remembered reflection of the sea, an ancient maternal symbol well employed here--The Memory of Water charts its characters' growing self-understanding as they sort through their mother's effects and the memories they evoke. Mary, apparently the only one who can see Vi, is the middle child, a 39-year-old neurologist who's eschewed family and motherhood in favor of a career (the extent of her sacrifice, greater than she realizes, is revealed in the play's climax). Locked in a longtime affair with a married man who clearly will never leave his wife, Mary thinks she may be pregnant--even though her lover, Mike, insists he's had a vasectomy.
Mary's older sister, Teresa, runs a health-food business with her husband, a Scot named Frank, just as Vi and her late husband once operated a hardware store together. A prim pragmatist--the kind of woman who says "I'm in a meeting" when her cell phone goes off at a funeral--Teresa had been saddled with Vi during her illness, and her resentment runs deep: a well of dark feeling lies beneath her take-charge surface, as becomes all too evident when she has a few drinks too many. The youngest sister, Catherine, is a manic-depressive pothead--a Twiggy wannabe in retro-hip miniskirt and platform shoes, anxiously awaiting a phone call from her latest boyfriend, a Spaniard named Javier (the other women, in unconscious condescension, call him Pepe). Catherine's attention-grabbing antics have long since lost their power over Teresa and Mary--but they're effective with Mike and Frank, to the other women's irritation.
As her title indicates, Stephenson is concerned with the subjectivity of memory--a force at once biological, philosophical, and spiritual. The memory theme is played out in Vi's battle with Alzheimer's and in Mary's account of one of her patients--a young amnesiac who knows how to ride a bicycle but can't think what to call it. The script's primary focus, however, is on the sisters' conflicting memories: they argue over everything from who threw up on the TV set when to who should answer the phone now. (They even argue over whether they're arguing or merely "bickering.") But over the course of the play their fighting gives way to sisterly connection--sometimes painful, as when they suddenly realize and empathize with their mother's loneliness, and sometimes exhilarating, as when they're reduced to delightful giggling girlhood as they rummage through their mum's collection of outre 60s dresses and wigs. Gradually the women begin to comprehend how much of their mother is in them--and how much each of them is in the others. This tentative realization doesn't make for any drastic changes in their lives, merely for a better understanding of who they are and why they're on the paths they're on.
Sometimes recalling a Harold Pinter play, sometimes a Woody Allen film, and other times a giddy episode of Absolutely Fabulous, this alternately rowdy and reflective comedy-drama is an impressive first work for the stage--though Stephenson, previously a performer and BBC radio writer, displays some of the shortcomings of a novice. She occasionally resorts to cliched nostalgia: when one character reminisces about listening to the music of Nat King Cole, for instance, it's all too obvious that the play will end with Cole's recording of "Unforgettable." And the systematic way she piles up revelations about her characters' troubled lives is sometimes too calculated to be credible. But at its core, The Memory of Water has two crucial things going for it: potent subject matter and the rich texture and humor of the writing. A showpiece for its lead actresses, the play clearly draws on Stephenson's onstage experience--she knows how to give performers solid, funny, nuanced opportunities not only for quirky individual characterizations but for strong interactions as an ensemble.
The Steppenwolf actors make the most of the opportunity. Amy Morton brings a masterful blend of irony, vulnerability, and mystery to the part of Mary, and Martha Lavey--whose natural elegance has sometimes led directors to cast her as merely icy and aloof--finds wonderful nuances in the oldest sister's emotional repression: her handling of Teresa's drunken dramatics is uncannily accurate. LA actor Heather Ehlers is hilarious and infuriating as the outrageous Catherine, while Rick Snyder and Tim Grimm bring depth to the supporting roles of Frank and Mike. As Vi, Mary Beth Fisher is an eerie ghost, at first clinging to life, then gradually disengaging. Complementing the fine acting and evocative set and lighting are Allison Reeds's costumes and Richard Woodbury's haunting, rhythmically charged modal violin score. Wryly witty and touchingly honest, The Memory of Water is one of Steppenwolf's most satisfying premieres in recent years.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Michael Brosilow.