August 09, 2012
The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson. Directed by Ed Wightman. Canberra Repertory. Theatre 3. August 3-18. Reviewer: Alanna Maclean
The Memory of Water is an absorbing play about a mother's funeral and her three daughters who have arrived at various stages of life's disarrays. Eldest sister Theresa (Andrea Close) is lumped with the organising of the funeral just as she has been lumped with the descent of mother Vi (Sally Rynveld) into Alzheimer's. Youngest sister Catherine (Eliza Bell), fresh in from Spain, is scatty, prone to substance abuse and totally unsettled. Middle sister Mary (Lainie Hart) is a doctor, but this success is not as secure as it might seem.
Added to this group are Theresa's stoic husband Frank (Robert de Fries) and Mary's married doctor boyfriend Mike (David McNamara). Catherine's boyfriend is a tenuous Spaniard who is no more than a voice on the phone.
It's a ghost story of sorts, since Vi is still very much present, not in her decline but as she would have been when the girls were growing up - a solidly glamorous and sensible woman in a silky dark-green 1950s sheath dress and black sling backs.
And outside, the play being set in northern England in winter, as in The Mousetrap over at the Playhouse, the snow is falling relentlessly.
All of this sounds unutterably gloomy but the laughs come frequently in Ed Wightman's sensitive and powerful production. The best opportunities come to Close's Theresa in the grip of drink and plain speaking, Bell's Catherine almost incoherent in her immaturity and all three sisters when they attempt the post mortem sorting of Vi's rather magnificent wardrobe. (Helen Drum's careful costuming choices work particularly well here.)
De Fries as the somewhat harried Frank has a lovely sense of the man's rather desperate silences. McNamara as Mary's Mike has less of the comedy but shows a pragmatic calm in the face of some fairly tough turns in the plot. He's rather like Vi in this respect, when she and Mary finally confront the difference between women's lives and decisions in the 1950s and today's possibilities.
The house is on the edge of the sea and is probably doomed eventually as a result. There's lots of talk of this and the phenomenon of water supposedly retaining a ''memory'' of anything that has ever been in it. Doctors Mary and Mike laugh at this unscientific stuff but the language of the play is full of this kind of imagery and Vi floats through it all on Quentin Mitchell's splendid design for a room on the edge of decay supported especially in the surreal moments by edgy elements in Lachlan Ruffy's lighting design. Sound designed by Neil McRitchie with original music by Jonathan McFeat works well, although the timing of the final cue could do with more subtlety.