Three sisters reunite in a coastal town in the north of England during a snowstorm for the funeral of their long-widowed mother. This formulaic scenario snaps to vibrant, singular life in Third Encore Company's incisive production of British playwright Shelagh Stephenson's dark comedy The Memory of Water, which won Britain's Olivier Award in 2000. The play's title refers to how an element, once introduced in water, will make its presence felt long after it is gone—a none too subtle reference to the mother's lingering influence on her daughters' lives.
The way we remember our past and how those narratives color and influence the present is the overarching theme. Every permutation of memory is folded into the work: displaced memories, appropriated memories, false memories, the absence of memories, the oblivion of Alzheimer's disease, and post-brain-trauma amnesia.
Teresa, Mary, and Catherine have little in common with each other; even their recollections of their family past are starkly at odds. With the snowstorm pinning them inside on the eve of the funeral, they pass the time in their mother's bedroom arguing and sorting through her old clothes and their old memories. As whiskey, marijuana, and grief break down their defenses, raw unhappiness, age-old resentments, and long-held secrets rise to the surface, forcing each sister to look at herself and her relationships with men in a cold, unforgiving light. Thanks to Stephenson's biting wit and gallows humor and to Ellen Lichtensteiger's careful direction, the play develops an emotional punch but is never dour.
Teresa (Abby Overton), who runs a health supplements business with her husband Frank, is the prim and hyper-organized oldest daughter who has shouldered the burden of caring for their dying mother. Mary (Karen Sternberg), smart and brittle, is a psychiatrist who has been carrying on a long affair with a suave celebrity doctor (Todd Reichart) who refuses to leave his wife. Catherine (Zoe Frazier) is their immature and attention-seeking younger sister who binges on men, drugs, and clothing.
They are the progeny of Vi (Victoria Bundonis), a refined, ultra-feminine woman of working-class roots who has clawed her way to middle-class respectability. Vi, wearing a green taffeta cocktail dress, makes cameo appearances in Mary's revealing dreams.
Stephenson's gift for dialogue is manifest in the play's moments of emotional revelation. In these dreams, for example, Vi finally has her say. She scolds Mary, "You invent these versions of me, and I don't recognize myself" and then tells her how she sees it: "I'm proud of you, and you're ashamed of me."
Stephenson is also particularly fine in recreating the lacerating arguments that unhappy couples can have in private. It's hard not to flinch as Teresa and Frank, in one exchange, shred the comforting stories they have told each other about their love and marriage.
The five-person cast, on the whole, gives convincing and sympathetic portrayals of these imperfect characters. Only Frazier, as the youngest daughter Catherine, seems unable to move beyond caricature, though in all fairness her character is the shallowest of the bunch.
The mother's genteel Victorian bedroom is meticulously created by Tim McMath. Jessica Cloutier pithily captures each character's personality in his or her clothing, though she goes over the top with Catherine's zany outfits. David Roy's eerie lighting and Katherine Miller's low-buzzing sounds evoke the off-kilter reality of the dream sequences. Where the design team stumbles is in creating a compelling illusion of a raging storm outside, depriving the play of a resonant symbol.
The Memory of Water was Stephenson's first stage play, and she's written four more since. It's whetted my appetite to see more of her work.