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Memory House: Mother-Daughter Story Fails to Come to Life

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Check out our interview with playwright Kathleen Tolan. The set-up:

In Memory House a mother attempts to connect with her adopted daughter, while the daughter works on finishing an essay required for a college application.

The execution:

There are gulfs a mile wide between this pair, and we never quite find out why. The exposition, handled without special finesse, lets us in on the fact that the daughter, Katia, was adopted from Russia at the age of 6, and we are exposed to Katia's discomfort and resentments, chiefly because she has no memory of her early life. Katia fits the stereotype of the rebellious teen-ager, played by Joanna Hubbard as though she were 13 or 14 instead of pre-college - strangely, this is how the part appears to have been written. Hubbard dutifully changes expressions, flounces from couch to chair, and puts on and takes off outer garments frequently, a device that simulates action otherwise missing, but Hubbard never manages to make Katia interesting, or make us care about her petulance.

Rebecca Greene Udden as the adoptive mother Maggie creates a portrait of a sincere and dedicated woman, long-suffering and patient. Her action is to bake a pie from scratch, so that it may not be quite accurate to say that nothing much happens in this play. The playwright, Kathleen Tolan, has actually given Maggie a keen sense-of-humor and a dry wit, but Udden and the play's director, Claire Hart-Palumbo, seem unaware of this - fortunately, the audience got the occasional humor despite flat line delivery.

The real action is bickering, back and forth, insult and retort, reconciliation and sulking, with no intermission to let us escape, even momentarily, the exchange of words. The director and actors haven't forged a real connection between these two women, and I never for a moment believed they shared the same household and knew each other intimately. Part of this is the writer's fault, but the actors contribute by failing to listen to each other, sometimes providing a reaction before a line is finished. They connect with their lines, not with each other; different direction might have remedied this. It sometimes appears as though they were meeting for the first time, on a bad blind date, where they sense immediately that there is no chemistry, but continue anyway to share information about themselves.

Some ideas are put forth but never really explored. Katia is anti-American because of U.S. military intervention abroad, curious since Mother Russia was no paragon in this area. Katia drops the F-bomb often enough to serve an entire Theater Festival, so both these devices may just be for what they were intended, to shock us. The pace here is like watching a glacier melt - before global warming.

The set is deliberately unattractive, to provide an authentic "lived-in" look, I assume. The kitchen worktable is cluttered with a lot of baking paraphernalia, but the set designer stopped short of the refrigerator, seen to be largely empty when opened. There is the easily-anticipated reconciliation and hug at the end, but this was not enough to atone for the long dreary beginning, when Maggie made her pie crust and Katia did nothing much, enlivened by long moments of silence. The oven seemed to work, surprisingly, since there was no electricity on stage.

The verdict:

Good intentions and some homilies are not enough to bring to life a play that seems to meander aimlessly, and pedestrian direction and acting do little to solve the problem.

Memory House continues through February 10, at Main Street Theater, Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-524-6706 or contact the theater's website.

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