The death of a parent, especially the mother, is usually a particularly painful passage and one for which most people, however well meaning, can offer few meaningful words of solace. But in Shelagh Stephenson's funny, moving The Memory of Water, now being performed at the Mosaic Theatre in Plantation, such a death is an occasion for many profound and bitterly funny words.
After a death -- the truth comes out, and things get lively.
The play takes us to a seaside town in the north of England on a snowy winter's night, when two middle-aged siblings, Mary (Bridget Connors), and her elder sister, Teresa (Lisa Morgan), find themselves together in their mother's tatty, faded flat, sitting on their mother's old, cold brass bed shortly after she has died. In their deeply buried grief and barely concealed mutual antagonism, the sisters try to carry on a civil conversation in a series of false starts, unspoken impulses, and hesitant pauses, all as painful as they are hilarious. In this scene, as throughout the production, Connors and Morgan offer a superior blend of emotional honesty and performance skill that's as fine an example of the craft of acting as we're likely to find in South Florida this season.
Mary is the play's central character, the middle daughter of three, unmarried and in her 40s, with a successful career as a physician and a not-so-successful five-year relationship with a married colleague. She returns with extreme reluctance to her childhood home to help divide the belongings of her mother, Vi, and to prepare for the funeral that's set for the next morning. As she expects, she must contend with Teresa, who seethes with resentment that Mary escaped to live her own life while Teresa stayed on, the dutiful eldest daughter. Both must also countenance their younger sister, Catherine (Lauren Feldman), a punked-out rebel with a penchant for magenta hair, wild mascara, designer drugs, and a string of foreign boyfriends. These three sisters are no saints; with the aid of potent smoke and a bottle of scotch, several deep, dark secrets are revealed, and memories of their childhood turn out to be closer to wish fulfillment than the stone-cold truth.
Stephenson's script unwinds in rather conventional scenes that oscillate between sitcom and heartbreak, but what sets this tale apart is a series of harrowing visitations from Vi herself (Jessica K. Peterson), an unhappy spirit dressed in black gloves and a green organza dress from the 1950s who, unseen by all but Mary, floats in and out of the story like the smoke from her ever-present cigarette. Vi keeps pondering the pleasures and disappointments of her life and accuses Mary, the success story in the family, of failing to see who Vi really was. A confrontation with a ghost parent is an old theatrical device, dating back to Hamletand earlier, but this ghost is particularly creepy. In Vi's afterworld, there is no solace or rest, just endless regret.
Amid this family strife, the sisters wrestle with the men in their lives. Hapless Mike (Joe Kimble), Mary's adulterous swain, dodges her attempts to clarify their relationship, while Catherine breathlessly awaits the imminent arrival of her illusive Spanish lover. Meanwhile, Teresa's quiet, patient husband, Frank (Ken Clement), harbors secret hopes that he dares to reveal only after much provocation from Teresa, who tends to get roaring drunk when she starts tippling.
But plot is by no means the point of this Memory -- character is everything. The dynamics among the sisters and the effects of their Catholic upbringing are carefully etched, as each daughter is shown to be carrying on a different aspect of Vi's flawed personality.
Director Kim St. Leon shows a true gift for working with actors, navigating her cast through some deep and conflicting emotional currents, and the cast also offers a fine sense of comedic timing. The British accents tend to wander through geography and class (with the exception of the British-born Morgan, who keeps her character firmly planted north of the Midlands), but such defects are easily excused with a cast this capable. The odd woman out here is the 20-something Feldman, who, while she brings energy and commitment, is seriously astray as the aging punker. Rich Simone's deliberately tired bedroom set in fading powder blue offers a personal history in a single glance, while Meredith Lasher's colorful, garish costumes from the '50s and '60s are much like the play -- funny and sad at once. One jarring production element in this satisfying production is a distracting snowfall effect, courtesy of an off-stage machine that sounds rather like a leaf blower set on high. Better to leave some things to the imagination.