The Aurora Fox Arts Center's The Memory of Water has some passable portrayals, but the play's complex family relationships don't progress beyond the embryonic stage. Plagued by glacial pacing, wretched British accents and frequent directorial miscues, English playwright Shelagh Stephenson's touching work devolves into a mishmash of tinny one-liners and misplaced angst.
The actresses who play three disparate sisters reunited for their mother's funeral try mightily to convince us that they differ in how they respond to a parent's death, and that they have varying memories of their common past. The two-act comedy/drama (which was a hit when it premiered in London, and later played off-Broadway), is full of zingers that seem intended to underscore basic family conflicts. But as played here, these musings seem disconnected from the rest of the dialogue and wind up overshadowing the action. Consequently, rather than identifying with a fairly universal situation, the audience watches in respectful, though disinterested, silence -- or, as was the case at a recent performance, nods in silent agreement with a group of patrons who left at intermission, one of them muttering, "I've had all of this I can take."
Most of the problems can be traced to director David Payne's failure to establish, much less orchestrate, believable relationships between the characters. One sister enters the bedroom where her older sibling is staying, and several minutes later it's hard to tell whether the women are blood relatives, roommates or casual acquaintances. When one asks the other why they always seem to argue whenever they're together, there's nothing that precedes, colors or follows the exchange that indicates the presence of a sisterly rift; their arguing seems tentative, almost polite. A few minutes later, they sit side by side on a small trunk -- but there's nothing in either performer's body language that says these supposedly feuding sisters are the least bit wary of each other. And no matter how sincerely they trade old stories, insults and jokes, the three leading actresses never convey the idea that they're all part of the same family -- a shortcoming that looms even larger when some family secrets are uncovered in a clothes closet during Act Two. When combined with the spotty, inconsistent accents (some of the actors can't get the hang of the British broad "a" sound, while others don't have a clue about which words require its use), it becomes clear that the show could have used about ten more days of rehearsal -- with as much attention paid to the dynamics of relationships as to those of each individual character.
Even though Payne didn't help the actors realize a sharp ensemble feel, they do achieve some nice moments on their own. Actress Martha Harmon Pardee turns in a strong, emotionally varied performance as Mary, the sister who bosses the other two around even as she struggles to get a grip on her own life. Emily Paton Davis charms as the leopard-outfit-wearing Catherine, an independent-minded sexpot who doesn't know if she can bear to face life on her own. Gina Wencel hits most of the right notes as Teresa, the dutiful child who, following her mother's death, finally musters the gumption to tell off her husband for the silences that have passed between them all these years. Jan Cleveland is a mysterious enough presence as the deceased matriarch, Vi, who appears in a couple of dream sequences. And Jeffrey Atherton and Tom Hanna are serviceable as, respectively, Mary's married boyfriend and Teresa's befuddled mate.
Apart from an interesting bit about the title's significance and a motherly lesson that occurs near the end of the play, there's not much to recommend this production, which drags and lurches to an unremarkable conclusion. Much like the corpseless coffin that dominates one scene, Payne and company's approach proves too hollow to ring true.
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