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Funerals are always ripe for family drama, in life and on stage. Shelagh Stephenson's 1996 comedy-drama, The Memory of Water, brings together three very different sisters for their mother's funeral. Old recriminations and new revelations fuel humorous and emotional interactions with one other, their romantic partners, and the spirit of their mother. Forest Moon Theater's production, in Wake Forest's Renaissance Centre, boasts a likeable cast, confident direction, and a satisfying experience, despite some technical issues.
Set in an English coastal town in 1996, it's the day before the funeral of Vi, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease before dying at age 75. Her oldest daughter, Teresa, was caretaker for her mother and resents that her two sisters did not help out, particularly because Teresa and her husband also run a full-time business selling homeopathic medicines. Mary, the middle child, is a successful doctor who was the mother's favorite, causing resentment in her siblings. Catherine, the youngest, has always felt unnoticed and unloved, driving her to attention-seeking antics and grasping at every male who pays any notice.
Teresa pushes Mary and Catherine to help pick out flowers for the funeral and sort through their mother's clothes, but each are distracted by relationship problems. Teresa's husband, Frank, is dissatisfied being a homeopathic salesman; Mary has been having a secret five-year affair with Mike, a married doctor; and Catherine is anxiously waiting for a call from her MIA boyfriend. As the day wears on, bickering becomes more and more heated, especially after Mike shows up for the funeral. Between Catherine's passed-around joint and Mary's smuggled-in bottle of whiskey, everyone gets loosened up enough to reveal their true feelings and tell long-held secrets.
Kirsten Ehlert made Mary's frustration believable, ably tossing off witty putdowns and delivering heartfelt questionings of her current situation. Stephenson's script gives Mary the widest range to play, and Ehlert measured up in all aspects. Ashley Rebecca Jones' Teresa was a recognizable type, complaining about being responsible for everything while indicating a secret satisfaction in doing so. The script makes Teresa somewhat one-sided in the first act but gives the character an extended, inebriated rant in the second act, which allowed Jones to show her true mettle as a comedian. As Catherine, Emily Yates provided high energy and quirky characteristics, veering on caricature, but showing fine depth in her second act breakdown.
In several key scenes, Vi appears to Mary and the mother-daughter confrontations are some of Stephenson's best writing. Jean Jamison invested Vi with appropriate bitterness and self-absorption, her mini-battles with Ehlert's Mary opening windows into their true relationship.
Stephenson doesn't give Mike and Frank much to do but each have their small moments. Tom Barbieri amused in Mike's mostly unsuccessful attempts to keep out of the fray, walking on eggshells with Mary's demands for more commitment. Joey DeSena's Frank was properly henpecked and resigned, although DeSena seemed ill-at-ease in his blocking and over-emphasized his facial expressions. Both actors had times when they needed to project more for full clarity.
Director Bob Baird demonstrated his experienced hand in keeping the action flowing and establishing appropriate moods for each scene. He elicited believable British accents from all cast members, who were generally understandable, despite some tendencies to be too speedy and clipped. (This was a particular problem in the first fifteen minutes, when the audience had to adjust to the accents and the pitches of the actors' voices.)
Much work has been done in the Renaissance Centre to improve the building's acoustics, including adding baffling and multiple microphones around the stage, but there were still problems when actors were farthest upstage.
Lighting designer Alyssa Petrone ably distinguished between reality and memory scenes, giving sharp focus to several emotional monologues. Sound designer Tom Arman expertly provided the necessary telephone rings, horn beeps, and otherworldly tinklings. Gayle Jordan's costume choices were character-appropriate, especially for Catherine. Bob Baird, Erin Irwin and Alyssa Petrone's bedroom set, which had to encompass required furnishings of a double bed, wardrobe, mirrored vanity dresser, chairs, and end table, made the available acting space fairly cramped, sometimes causing traffic jams and awkward stage pictures.
Stephenson provides a lot of laughs and a number of dramatic outbursts, rightly making no one a villain and showing everyone's flaws and finer points. The first act could be done as a one-act in its well-integrated plot and character. Stephenson attempts too many themes in the second act (how memories are affected by circumstances, the devastating effects of dementia, how relationships go sour, the perennial conflicts between parents and children) without fully developing all of them. Still, the script holds attention and, despite a liberal use of profanity, should prove a gratifying evening of theatre.
The Memory of Water continues through Sunday, November 18. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.