‘Forgiving someone’s just like throwing a switch,” says Vi, a recently deceased British housewife and mother, to her not-quite-grieving daughter Mary. “It’s just a decision—and afterwards you’re free.”
In Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 play The Memory of Water, running through April 7 at Main Stage West theater, forgiveness does not come easily. Not for Mary (a grounded, moving Allison Rae Baker) or for her two estranged sisters, the high-strung Teresa (Bronwen Shears, all brittle nerves and frozen fire) and the serially lovesick Catherine (Shannon Rider, never better). It is only Mary, an unhappy doctor haunted by past mistakes and obsessed with a young memory-loss patient, who’s begun seeing her dead mother (a lovingly passive-aggressive Mary Gannon Graham) popping up dressed to the nines, dispensing hard motherly advice—despite having died of Alzheimer’s a few days before.
As the sisters come together to make funeral plans and divide up mom’s stuff, it’s clear that neither daughter remembers her mother exactly the same way. Death, it seems, has somewhat improved Vi’s mothering skills. In none of her daughters’ memories was she particularly attentive or supportive, and the result of her parenting—either outright neglectful or overly controlling and manipulative—is that all three sisters are now rip-roaring emotional messes.
Teresa, who owns a homeopathic remedy company with her reluctant husband Frank (a nicely understated Keith Baker) recites cookbook recipes to calm her rapidly unraveling nerves. She was the one who cared for Vi during her illness, and she clearly resents her sisters’ lack of empathy for her sacrifice. Catherine is only concerned about the state of her relationship with her current fling Xavier, the latest in a string of 78 failed hook-ups.
Once described as a cross between Chekhov and Neil Simon, The Memory of Water, nicely directed for MSW by John Craven, swings wildly between moments of genuine piercing pain and stretches of spot-on, laugh-out-loud comedy. Paul Huberty, as Mary’s married lover Mike, is hilarious, especially in a sequence where he tries desperately to unfreeze himself after being locked outside in the cold.
Stephenson’s lovely writing, tightly woven and focused, becomes a bit diluted in the final thirty minutes, losing some of its potency as the playwright piles on so many sudden revelations, secrets, and hidden betrayals that it all threatens to become shrill and overwrought. That said, the play works. The steady magnificence of the cast and the raw, clear-sighted honesty of Stephenson’s characters combine into a thought-provoking—and largely unforgettable—evening of theater.