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A CurtainUp Review
TheMemory of Water

It's been 13 years since I saw Sheilagh Callaghan's first play, The Memory of Water, at New York's Manhattan Theater Club. The action revolves around a funeral that brings together the chief mourners — three sisters with little in common except that they all still live with the unhealthy legacies of their childhood with the mother they've come to bury. Given that occasions like this tends to throw already tense family relationships into a dither prompting extremes of behavior, it gave Callaghan ample opportunity to indulge her inclination to make everything come out funny. Consequently what basically fell under the rubrik of tragedy, better fitte the portmanteau genre of dramedy.

Call it what you will, The Memory of Water was an impressive enough debut play to forgive its more obvious structural devices and cliches — like a tin that's a Pandora's box holding a long ago secret, a ticking biological clock, unreliable lovers, an extended drunk scene. Some of the gallows humor actually was quite funny. The middle sister's occasional visitations from the dead mother's ghost worked to fill in the lose ends in the family history and as a pause from the more frantic interactions that are part of packing up the mother's belongings. The biggest laugh was actually provoked by the oldest sister Teresa's husband Frank who, when she temporarily abandons her health food regime and obsessive organizing to take more than a few drinks (as well as puffs from her younger sister's reefer) is roused to declare "I hated Hannah and Her Sisters. I hate Woody Allen." Smith-Cameron), is a vaguely discontented successful doctor with an equally successful lover Mike (David Hunt), who is, alas, married. Catherine (Seana Kofoed), is the youngest and most immature who binges on shopping for inappropriate clothes, go nowhere love affairs, and drugs. There's also the about to be buried mum Vi (Robin Mosley). This ghostly vision in green tafetta is visible and audible only to Mary though her influence and demand to be understood rather than buried and forgotten is driving the oldest and youngest sister as well.

A ghost story? Not really. A tragedy? Yes, in that all daughters and mothers who fail to successfully navigate the troubling shores of love and antagonism also tend to fail in establishing healthy and enduring connections with sisters and lovers. A comedy? Yes again. Laughter is as much a guest at this funeral as grief.

One of the biggest laughs is provoked by the oldest sister Teresa's husband Frank (Peter McRobbie). Teresa, who's temporarily abandoned her health food regime to take more than a few drinks (as well as puffs from her younger sister's reefer) has thrown the already tense family group into a dither by bringing sister Mary's long-buried past into the present. This rouses the usually docile and silent Frank to declare "I hated Hannah and Her Sisters. I hate Woody Allen." What he really hates is his life, and particularly his marriage, which began with a date on which he pretended to like the movie. But while Frank professes to hate Allen's movie which had become a classic by the time Stephenson became a playwright, the play gave more than a few intimations of being a homage to it. Within the narrower framework of a couple of days at the seaside home where they grew up (Hannah stretches over three Thanksgiving gatherings) and the single visual focal point of the dead mother's bedroom (Hannah roams all over Manhattan), Memory echoes that movie's primary theme: The attempt by three sisters to deal with the fallout of their shared but differently remembered family history.

While there are other bits and pieces to validate this idea of homage, Memory is very much born out of Ms. Stephenson's own viewpoint and voice. It is a viewpoint which ties these women's choices in life styles and men directly to the patterns growing out of the troublesome maternal tie — the unconscious gestures, the knotty antagonistic love that needs sorting out along with the clothes in Mum's armoire. It is a voice that expresses itself with dialogue that has genuine sparkle ( especially the "\gallows humor lines) and that brings off the contrivance of the ghostly Vi while relegating the less successful dramatic devices to minor annoyances in a promising debut by a new playwright. One character declares early on in the play, "all memory is false" but your memory of this play will be more of its strengths than its weaknesses, its thought-provoking ideas rather than its cliches (for example, a tin that's a Pandora's box holding a long ago secret, a ticking biological clock, unreliable lovers, an extended drunk scene).

No small measure of this New York premiere's success, (the play opened in London in 1996 and was produced at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater), is due to the outstanding six-member ensemble and the impeccable staging and direction. While J. Smith-Cameron is the pivotal sister of the trio, the one who takes the most visible and giant emotional step forward, Suzanne Bertish and Seana Koford do outstanding work as the controlling Teresa and the manic Catherine. David Hunt as Mike, Mary's married television doctor boyfriend and Peter McRobbie as the puppet-husband who displaces his rage at his wife on Woody Allen, turn their minor roles into major achievements. That leaves Robin Moseley. Her lively and oh-so-reasonable Vi turns a character who might easily be an old B-movie stereotype into a real woman crying out for understanding.

The crafts team works magic with the visual elements: James Noone's mauve pink flowery bedroom has a symbolic crack over the bed. Jess Goldstein puts robes to match the decor on a wall hook, fills mom's armoire with Vi's tacky party dresses for the one sisterly scene when instead of just packing things up for the inevitable post-funeral charity donations they play dress up and remember. She also fills Catherine shopping bag with aptly outrageous outfits, including a funeral outfit Teresa dismisses with "you'll look like Elton John." Donald Holder's lighting keeps the snow storm outside a subtly pervasive presence — adding another dimension to the symbolism of water as part of our biological system (in this case lives frozen by false and unresolved memories). John Tillinger, blessedly given a more satisfying new play to work with than the recent Getting and Spending, keeps everyone and everything, moving forward with swiftly paced scenes, interspersed with the quieter and more thoughtful interchanges between Mary and Vi.

It's nice to know that Ms. Stephenson has just delivered another script to London's Hampstead Theater. With writers like her and Margaret Edson (Wit ) and Tracy Letts (Killer Joe ) perhaps Mark Twain's comment that reports of his death were premature can also be applied to the straight play.

The Memory of Water By Shelagh Stephenson
Directed by John Tillinger
With Suzanne Bertish, J. Smith-Cameron, David Hunt, Seana Kofoed, Peter McRobbie, Robin Moseley
Set design: James Noone
Costume design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting design: Donald Holder
Sound design: Aural Fixation
Manhattan Theatre Club
Stage II at City Center, 131 W. 55th St. (Betw. 6th & 7th Aves)
Performances; opened, 11/10/98
Reviewed 11/15/98 by Elyse Sommer/td>
©Copyright 1998, Elyse Sommer,