I went to The Memory of Water anticipating a comedy; it was billed as such, winning the Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 1999. The director's notes in the program quote Frank, a character in the play, as saying, "I hated Hannah and Her Sisters." That 1986 film directed by Woody Allen had some laughs of course, but it had far more family pathos than humor. The same can be said for Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water, now playing at the Boise Contemporary Theater. When the character Mary, played by Tracy Sunderland, delivered the final line of the play, it went unexpectedly like a knife right into my heart, and (trite though it sounds) tears sprang to my eyes ... not what one would expect from a play billed as a comedy, but a telling tribute to the fine acting in BCT's production of Stephenson's play.
During the first act, the actors are constrained by a script that tries to be too much of a "Ha ha, isn't this crazy" comedy. Ha ha, it's not. It was uncomfortable watching the sisters get stoned and play dress up in their mother's clothes. Uncomfortable because it wasn't credible. Not with these three sisters, who have a lot of unresolved animosity toward each other, which they have no qualms about expressing--even though they have not seen each other for awhile, and the occasion of their reunion is their mother's funeral.
The play really begins to take off, though, when Vi, the mother, (her ghost?) makes a second visit, and we begin to see the family from her perspective rather than that of the daughters. Oh, the ingratitude! Oh, that Vi had been around to tell Freud a thing or two about blaming everything on "the mother." Ann Klautsch nails this character. She speaks from the land of the dead, but she is the first sincere and tender character in the play. It must be easier to be sincere from the grave. Like water though, this trait and the need for tenderness has seeped into her daughters, and the play gets better and better as each reveals what emotions really drive them and why they are the way they are. Some highlights: Teresa, the eldest, played by Christina Lang, gets heavily intoxicated. Lang acts this well, drunkenly revealing long-held family secrets. It sounds cliched, but with Lang, it is not. She might consider playing Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf for her next role.
Catherine, the youngest daughter, played with appropriate spunkiness by Kathryn Cherasaro, has slept with 78 men, and she is desperate to not go through life alone. She opens the play to another theme: the role of the absent/silent father in these women's lives. The two male characters in the play are obviously going to be held up to close inspection given their prominent roles in the lives of the two other sisters. Frank, the husband of the eldest sister, played by Arthur Glenn Hughes, has the funniest lines in the play and, in fact, described himself in a personal add as "witty and charming." He turns out to be neither any longer to his wife, Teresa, but things could change. After the play, the man sitting two seats from me said, "Frank really was 'witty and charming.'" We in the vicinity all laughed. Yes, ironically, Frank was.
Richard Klautsch has the honor of playing Mike, lover to middle sister Mary. Mary who Vi the mother had such high hopes for ... wouldn't we all wish Mary better than a cad like Mike? Just as her mother surely would have? Klautsch channels Tony Blair for the role, perfect English accent, and he even looks like Blair. One never forgets he is Mike though, another limited, albeit charming, man in these women's lives. When Mary confronts him with a couple of very telling questions at the end of the play, one of which her mother would have been much better suited to answer, he counters with his own question, and it is her answer that caused my tears there at the end.
This play is set in Northern England, and all of the actors took on English accents. Ann Klautsch is the dialect coach for the play and compliments go to the coach and entire acting ensemble for making their acquired accents so credible. The Memory of Water may not have been the comedy I was anticipating, but unlike Frank, I did like Hannah and Her Sisters very much. If you like your drama spiced with a few good laughs, or your comedy heavy on drama, you won't want to miss The Memory of Water.
The Memory of Water runs Dec. 13-16 and 20-23, at 8 p.m., with matinees on Dec. 16 and 23 at 2 p.m. Tickets for evening performances are $28.50 and $20 for matinees. Boise Contemporary Theater, 854 Fulton St., 331-9224, www.bctheater.org.