Monday, April 23, 2018

A Chemist Recalls Her Admiration of "The Memory of Water"

Vi played by Susie Moak. Photo by Peter Kuo.
By Carol Van Zoeren
The Memory of Water, now showing at Chapel Street Players in Newark through April 28, 2018, was written by Shelagh Stephenson and is directed by Kathleen Kimber.

Three sisters come together before their mother's funeral, each haunted by her own demons. The three each have different memories of shared childhood events, causing constant, and often very funny, bickering about whose memories are true. As the three women get together after years of separation, their hidden lies and self-betrayals begin to surface.

As is often the case, the eldest sister, Theresa, is the "responsible one." Lori Ann Johnson clearly conveys Theresa’s resentment 
— that her family has always forced her to subsume her own needs to cover up family dysfunction. In one uncomfortable (though perhaps overlong) scene, Johnson expertly shows us Theresa’s inner battle whether to reveal a family secret that she has kept for decades and at great emotional cost.

Middle sister Mary (Susan Boudreaux) is superficially the "successful one." In her professional life, yes. In her personal life, not so much. Mary works hard to distance herself from her mother. Perhaps this is why mother Vi (Susie Moak) only interacts with Mary in dreamlike sequences. Boudreaux navigates the emotional roller coaster well. The opening scene of Act II between Moak and Boudreaux is especially moving. 

Youngest daughter Catherine (Cyndie Romer) is the "free spirit." But her pot smoking and binge shopping are clearly cries for the attention she never got as a child. And attention she still doesn’t get from a committed, loving partner. Romer skillfully shows us the vulnerability hiding behind the bravura.

All of this sounds like a real downer, right? But no! There are wonderful bon mots, put-downs and zingers, delivered with deadpan, spot-on comic timing. And, a hysterical scene when the somewhat stoned sisters play dress up with Mom’s outlandish wardrobe. It is simply wonderful to see an ensemble (which includes Dave Hastings and Frank Newton) gel. It’s clear that they enjoy being on stage together, and that is all to the credit of director Kathleen Kimber.

I really enjoyed this production, but I've gotta say, I’m not sure the British accents were necessary and sometimes got in the way of enunciation, especially of rightfully tossed off bon mots which the audience sometimes couldn’t hear clearly. Yes, the playwright is British and the script included a number of British terms and slang. Just saying I might have made a different choice for an American audience.

Reflecting on the play itself, I was impressed with the frequent touchpoints on memory, which rose organically from the dialog. For example, that Vi suffered from Alzheimer's. And that Mary is treating a patient with amnesia. And especially the concept that human memory isn’t just some repository of information, but is used to ensure survival. Indeed, the differences in how the sisters remember their childhood demonstrates that each remembers it in the way she must, for her own well-being.

And, OK, full disclosure. I’m a chemist and my favorite molecule is water. It touches me to the core that the title of this play is not so much about how we remember water, but rather how water remembers us. That which birthed us, remembers us. Playwright Shelagh Stephenson was known to draw inspiration from science. 

And to that I can only say (Britishly) — Huzzah!

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