A Body of Water

Awash in the meaning of memory and identity.

Without memory, we lose our identity. We can't know who we are unless we're aware of what we usually think about and read, who our friends are, what we like to eat, the flowers we prefer. And the workings of memory are mysterious. In his new book, Musicophilia, the ever-inspiring and revelatory Oliver Sacks describes the suffering of a musician, Clive Wearing, who completely lost his memory, both long and short-term. Every moment was completely new to Wearing. His wife once found him holding a chocolate in one hand and repeatedly covering it with the other, then exclaiming with surprise each time that this was an entirely new and different candy. Yet Wearing could follow musical sequence: He was able to play music on the piano from memory, as well as sight-read and conduct.

In Lee Blessing's A Body of Water, two middle-aged people wake up one morning in a beautiful house near a lake — or perhaps the shimmering they glimpse through the windows comes from more than one lake; they're never quite sure. They have no idea who or where they are, or why they've awoken together. They don't seem unduly rattled by this, however, calmly speculating about whether they're married and whose house they're currently occupying. A young woman, Wren, arrives wearing a jogging suit and bearing bagels. She seems to know the couple's tastes as well as their identities, and tells them their names are Moss and Avis. But her answers to the rest of their questions are anything but helpful. According to Wren, Moss and Avis are widely suspected of the brutal murder of their eleven-year-old daughter, Robin. Then the story changes, and changes again. Eventually, the young woman provides a terrible revelation about the couple's marriage and the way in which it ended. Wren owns to various identities herself, though usually she says she's Moss and Avis's daughter, and she's sometimes affectionate, sometimes teasing, often contemptuous and periodically downright vicious.

Julia Payne and David Payne explore meaning and memory in A Body of Water.
Julia Payne and David Payne explore meaning and memory in A Body of Water.

Moss and Avis do not have the same kind of amnesia as Clive Wearing; their ability to retain information is as fluid as the water surrounding them. They can get through long, coherent conversations. They often remember what Wren has told them or what they've said to each other, though at other times they forget. As a rule, both remain pleasantly calm, but every now and then — when one of them leaves the other alone in the room (despite their mutual incomprehension, Moss and Avis do come to recognize and depend on each other), or when Wren has been particularly savage — they suddenly experience the existential terror of their situation full force.

Blessing's play is as disorienting as his protagonists' situation. As the plot unfolds, we realize he may be playing tricks with time as well as memory. Perhaps what we're seeing isn't in sequence: What we think is the morning after may in fact be the morning before, or may be occurring weeks later. The tone of the play is ambiguous, too: You can't tell if it's a deep metaphysical exploration or a very highbrow murder mystery. Blessing explores such profound issues as the way narrative shapes our lives, our place in the universe and the possible unreality of relationships we consider solid — but you can't shake the feeling that you've been presented with an amusing intellectual Rubik's Cube. There seem to be all kinds of clues. Wren is obviously a bird's name, and so is Robin, and Avis means bird. Wren talks about how much she hates sparrows — or, as she calls them, "tiny shit-colored pigeons" — those pushy, nineteenth-century English imports that damaged the habitat of many birds native to this country. I remembered that in medieval times, robins were reputed to bury the dead with leaves ("Call for the robin redbreast and the wren/Since o'er shady groves they hover/And with leaves and flowers do cover/The friendless bodies of unburied men") and followed that thread for a while, but for the life of me, I couldn't make it connect. Any more than I could figure out why a man called Moss would talk so much about lichen.

The play is engrossing, but it has limitations. Moss and Avis are nice, educated people who'd be interesting if they had anything stored in their minds — but they don't, and they have no ability to change or develop over the course of the action. They're shocked at being suspected of murder, but they don't remain shocked, because they don't remember the conversation. And even if periodically some accumulation of feeling seems to stun them, in an instant — poof! — it's gone. David Payne and Julia Elstun Payne, who are married in real life, bring a strong sense of connubiality to the couple and make them rather charming, though their moments of heart-tearing panic could have been more deeply explored.

What of Wren? Are her stories a form of revenge for past cruelty or neglect? Is she trying to jolt her parents back to reality? Or is she so tired of caring for them that she's just playing games to amuse herself? The role could be as irritating as it is enigmatic, but fortunately it's played by Laura Norman, whose performance is so intelligent and thick with feeling, so rich in subtext, it holds you spellbound.

As a puzzle, A Body of Water disappoints. But if you relax into its mood and mystery, it's a play well worth experiencing.

 
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