The power of mothers — for good and ill — is a theater trope that never quite loses its potency. In Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water, three daughters convene for the funeral of their mother, Vi, who has, in different ways, ruined all their lives. Mary was the repository for Vi's ambitions, and she's now a successful doctor. Except that Mike, the doctor with whom she's in a long-term relationship, is married to an invalid wife and doesn't want to have a child with her. And she's obsessed with one of her patients, a twenty-year-old who suffers from amnesia. Teresa is also a doctor of sorts, a homeopath, and not very happily married. She's the one who took care of their mother as she sank into dementia, and she feels pretty resentful about it — so there's a somewhat sour tone to her periodic offers of therapeutic teas and tinctures. The third daughter, Catherine, is one of those self-destructive little sisters, given to drinking and drug-taking and generally ignored by the other two but still hoping for love.
As the title indicates, memory is at the center of this play. The water metaphor — which strikes me as more vaguely poetic than illuminating — arises from Teresa's practice: Homeopathic cures involve remedies diluted in water to the point that no molecule of the original remains, on the theory that the water still retains a kind of ghost or aftershadow of these substances. In the same way, the spirit of Vi — who turns out to be a very lively ghost indeed — lingers in the psyches of her daughters. There are many other references to memory in the script: Mary's thoughts about her amnesiac patient, the confusion Vi suffered as Alzheimer's took control of her brain, the fact that the sisters can't agree on the straightforward facts of a single childhood memory — at least not until the very end of the play. It's not that they interpret shared experiences differently; they can't even remember which one of them actually had the experience.
The script contains a lot of dry British humor, and the women's interactions are very entertaining at first. But evocative concepts keep getting raised and then dropped without any exemplification. It's true — and quite obvious — that we all see the world through the prism of our own experiences, but how exactly does this work in the lives of these three sisters? Clearly, their father was an absent figure and Vi an insufficient mother: vain, cold, uncomprehending and withholding. But the accusations she and Mary trade back and forth feel generic rather than specific: You didn't see me, you didn't hear me, you didn't understand me, says Mary. No, responds Vi's spirit: It was you who didn't see, you who didn't understand that I was in fact seeing you. And while each of the daughters is fucked up, the litany of problems isn't very original: marital incompatibility, lovers who won't commit, the longing for a child.
Stephenson is clearly a talented playwright with a good ear for language and a nice sense of humor, but in this early play — first published in 1997 — she hasn't yet found her voice. The acting, like the script, is very good — accomplished, funny or anguished where necessary — but only up to a point. Paige Larson holds the stage with frustrated dignity as Mary; Lisa DeCaro runs through a quicksilver repertoire of feelings as Teresa; Deborah Curtis's Vi projects authority, if not depth. Kurt Brighton turns in a fine performance as calm, reasonable and sometimes uncomprehending Mike. But Matthew Blood-Smyth has assumed a strange gargling voice as Teresa's frustrated husband, Frank, and it makes him sound drunk rather than just bone tired, as he's meant to be. Whether the issue was the acting or the script, I didn't connect with any of these people. None of them seemed quite real — except for Emily Paton Davies, whose crazy, funny, despairing Catherine periodically jolted the entire evening to life.