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Memory House: Working Out How to Stay Together and to Go Away

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Playwright Kathleen Tolan spent eight months researching overseas adoptions by Americans of Russian children (something now closed to us) while getting ready to write Memory House, a play about an American mother and the daughter she'd adopted from Russia.

The genesis for the play came years before when Tolan met and interviewed an American woman who'd adopted a 6-year-old girl from Russia and discussed with her how they'd had to navigate any number of things.

"The complexity being that this girl was both saved and taken," Tolan said in telephone interview. Tolan went on to pair that idea - moving the character's age to her late teens - with some of her own experiences as a parent whose daughter had just undergone the college admissions process.

And that's why in the regional premiere of the production at Main Street Theater, while mother Maggie struggles to make a blueberry pie, daughter Katia spends the night carping at mom while avoiding writing the college essays that are due at midnight.

For as much as Katia can appreciate how being brought to the United States probably made her life better, at the same time she has resentments about leaving the country of her birth.

Tolan, who is also a college professor with the State University of New York system at Purchase and who will teach a course at Barnard this spring, said even before she had children of her own, she has always been drawn to characters in their teen years, caught between youth and adulthood.

"Teenagers are much more kind of given to extremes and black and white assertions and that's really compelling," she said.

Responding to one critic's complaint that the daughter is much less sympathetic a character than the mom, Tolan conceded how some people might feel that, but she doesn't agree.

"I think that the play holds up in terms of rendering both characters sympathetically. The fact that the daughter is much more openly hostile and provocative is true to that age. It really shows a trust that she has for her mother and a need for her mother. A trust that she is able to say anything and really try to understand. She is testing her mother so that she can test her own feelings and thoughts. She feels safe with her mother even if she's not conscious of this safety. She trusts her mother to be there for her and to hear what she's saying and to respect what she's saying. They both have these human failings, these moments of exasperation or anger and then move on."

But this story "of leaving home and being left," Tolan says, isn't just tension and sadness, but has humor throughout.

"The mother has had some real disappointments and that's just the fact of it. I do remember one of my daughters saying to me when she was a preteen. I said something about some regrets I had in my life and she said 'I never will have regrets!' And I was like 'Good, great!'" .

Besides SUNY and Barnard, Tolan works with the MFA playwrights program at Rutgers. She does most of her writing during semester breaks, she said, and is tinkering with three different plays right now: a family that gathers at its cottage in Wisconsin to decide whether they need to sell it, a play about a young idealistic American economist who meets a Chilean activist and a play called Istanbul Notes that comes from interviews with Iraqi men who who'd been wrongly imprisoned at Abu Ghraib.

Main Street Theater Artistic Director Rebecca Greene Udden (a parent in real life) will play Maggie, while Joanna Hubbard (Life is a Dream) plays Katia.

"I think basically what I found there were several movements in the play and it was interesting to me that the final movement really was about the daughter saying 'Will you accept all of me?' Can I really go out the door and will you be OK?" Memory House runs January 17 - February 10 at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays , 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. For information call 713-524-6706, or visit the theater website. $20-$36

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