The Memory of Water, Shelagh Stevenson's new-ish play about three sisters coping with their mother's death after a prolonged bout with Alzheimer's Disease, is jam-packed with struggling marriages, pent-up familial resentment, abortive relationships and shadows of the deceased. Quite a comedy. At least the British thought so; nine months ago, after enjoying a popular run at London's Vaudeville Theatre, Memory won the 2000 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. What prompted this quirky and very British comedy to take a hope across the pond to fair Harvard's somewhat-less-fair Loeb Experimental Theater? In a word, or, rather, three words and two digits, director Tegan Shohet '01.
If you have seen a production of Memory elsewhere, you may pick up upon a rather noticeable change which the script has undergone; whereas, in the original text, the women's mother returns as a ghost to speak with Mary (Catherine Gowl '02), Shohet has chosen to evoke the mother's spirit without explicitly causing her to manifest herself. This decision fulfilled several functions for the production. It significantly cut down on the distinctly European (read: long) running time of the London production, turned the show into more of an ensemble piece (though Mary still tends to dominate) and helped to root the dramatic action in a reality which poltergeists tend to pretty readily disrupt. Though such decisions inevitably raise questions of the sanctity of authorship and the extent of directorial privilege (especially within the context of modern works), Shohet defends her choice to cut the mother's ghost. "Not having an actor play her allows the audience to see her through her daughters, which is how she lives on beyond the play-in their sometimes conflicting memories of her," she said.
That conflict of disjoined memories of a given event, though a fascinating concept well worthy of theatrical exploration, comes off as a bit heavy handed and contrived in Stevenson's script. The play itself is rather formulaic; it oscillates between high melodrama and situation-comedy. The strength of this production rests in the performers, specifically the three leading ladies. The remarkably strong cast of five has been commonly discussed in the weeks since common casting; the resulting hype may have unreasonably raised the expectations of campus audiences.
Given the exceptional talents of the individual performers, it is hard to shake off the feeling that The Memory of Water is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Teresa, played by Emily Knapp '03, is perhaps the most likeable of the sisters; it's a shame that she has to spend so much of the play intoxicated. The most successfully genuine moments of the play center around the reminiscences of Teresa and her husband, Frank (David Modigliani '02), as they describe their early courtship. Catherine (Lisa Faiman '03), the youngest sister, appears to be a walking stereotype of moderate rebellion. She seems to suffer the most from unrealized potential, frequently stumbling into a somewhat monotonous level of contrivance.
When Memory clicks, it is an inspiring synthesis of wonderfully talented performers. When it misses, it is a tedious mishmash of angst. Though this production is fairly evenly split between the two extremes, the shining moments, when they occur, certainly make The Memory of Water a show worth remembering.
THE MEMORY OF WATER
Tegan Shohet '01
Oct. 26-Nov. 5
Loeb Experimental Theater
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