Thursday June 23, 2011

LENOX -- On the surface, there is a certain air of worn familiarity about Shelagh Stephenson's "The Memory of Water": On the night before and morning of the funeral of their mother, three sisters try to come to terms with the unfinished business in their relationships with each other, with the men in their lives and with their mother.

But it's the telling that counts and in the solid production "The Memory of Water" is being given at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Stephenson's story is told with skill and perception.

"The Memory of Water" draws its title from a homeopathic theory by a French immunologist named Jacques Benveniste, who suggested that water retains the properties of any substance that's been dissolved in it, even if that substance is no longer traceable. In "The Memory of Water," that substance is mum, Vi (an effective Annette Miller), who has died of Alzheimer's and whose effect clearly is traced through her three daughters, each of whom is at an emotional edge -- Teresa (a bold and gritty Kristin Wold), who, together with her husband, Frank (Jason Asprey), runs a health food business; Catherine (a somewhat hit-and-miss Elizabeth Aspenlieder), the youngest and most free-spirited of the three whose relationships with men are, at best, tenuous and easily dissolvable; and especially Mary (a richly nuanced, finely tuned Corinna May), a doctor who specializes in brain disorders and is visited somewhat routinely by Vi's ghostly spirit.

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As "The Memory of Water" begins, Mary is having trouble sleeping. Worn down by a problematic medical case, she is forced to sleep in her mother's bed. It's not simply sleep she needs, it's refuge but her privacy is consistently intruded upon by the parade passing through -- Teresa, who has taken on responsibility for handling the funeral arrangements and harbors resentments against Mary and Catherine for leaving her alone, she claims, to look after their mother in her final months; the late-arriving Catherine, whose latest relationship to a Spanish restaurateur named Javier is about to crash and burn; the even later arriving Frank (Jason Asprey), steady, patient, a rock but also a man who clearly is not fulfilled by the business he runs with Teresa, his wife; and Mary's married lover, Mike (Nigel Gore), a physician and the father of three children.

The past, memory, personal history are central to "The Memory of Water." With insight, compassion and a rich sense of humor, Stephenson is writing about how we remember our life; about who owns our memories; about how memory is constructed or reconstructed to cushion us from pain and exposure, vulnerability; about the ways in which truth asserts itself. "The Memory of Water" also is about moving forward while, at the same time, holding on to security blankets; the illusions that sustain us.

Mary has, for five years, clung to a relationship that is safe but also less than what she may want while Mike clings to the fiction that he cannot leave his wife because she is ill.

Catherine sees her life as one act of abandonment after another. In one of the play's at once funniest and wrenching scenes, perfectly played by Aspenlieder, she breaks down as she deals with one more rejection.

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"The Memory of Water" is densely packed and it struggles through much of its largely expository first act to gain its footing; to find the keen balance between pathos and humor it finally does achieve in its much tighter second act.

Stephenson's writing gives each of these sisters a moment, a turn in which, liberated by alcohol or drugs or just plain weariness, boundaries disappear and what's been left unexpressed for so long gushes out. But Stephenson's men are not window dressing, particularly as they are portrayed by Gore and Asprey. Stephenson gives each of them their moment as well.

Gore's otherwise evasive Mike reveals, finally, his feelings about his marriage, parenthood and his relationship with Mary. Asprey's Frank (perhaps the most clearheaded of the lot), who handles marketing for the health food business he runs with Teresa, is worn down by a job that requires him to pitch a line of products he doesn't believe in. What he wants, he confesses to his scoffing wife, is to run his own pub. It's a touching, honest moment that Asprey handles with grace and conviction, qualities that also flow like trace elements through director Kevin Coleman's finely tuned, insightfully acted production.