"I can't seem to get the hang of any of you," says Vi (Deborah Hope), the dead mother of three idiosyncratic sisters who come home to bury her one long winter's night. Vi stands in her bedroom reliving the lonely past as her daughters try desperately to bury it. But in Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water, there is no forgetting, no burying what has been. For "nothing ever ends entirely," or so says Mary (Nathalie Cunningham), Vi's most promising and levelheaded daughter.
There is something very tender, almost forlorn, in this play about memory, rendered so sweetly in Stages' moving production. Directed by Deborah Kinghorn with a fine understanding for that angst-ridden space between comedy and tragedy, The Memory of Water glides lovingly across the rocky terrain of the collective familial past, that strange, always changing landscape that no two people ever remember in the same way. "I think your memories aren't the same as mine," says Vi, to her daughter. So it is with the sisters who both resent and love one another.
Thirty-nine-year-old Mary seems to be the most successful. She's a doctor with an upstanding career, but she's in love with a married man and has a sad secret that she has concealed for too many years. Teresa (Leslie Maness) is the workaday oldest child who took care of Vi throughout her sickness then handled all the funeral arrangements. She burns with resentment, which she spews in a night of drunken rage. The utterly debauched youngest child, Catherine, played with raucous joy by Lisa Marie Singerman, deals with her grief by taking gobs of drugs and enjoying her status as the family narcissist.
What happens over the course of the play is perhaps predictable: lots of family squabbling, unsavory revelations and some final moments of understanding. Yet this strong production makes the familiar journey worthwhile. And the seminal question posed halfway through the show -- "Can you feel nostalgic for something that never really existed?" -- is as thoughtful and as heartbreaking as they come.
The Memory of Water runs through Sunday, May 7, at Stages Repertory Theatre. $26-$37. For more information, call (713)52-STAGE.
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