The Memory of Water: opening night

This year’s Newry Drama Festival opens on Friday evening with a performance of Sheila Stephenson’s The Memory of Water.

The action of The Memory of Water by Sheila Stephenson (Ballymoney) revolves around a funeral. The chief mourners are three sisters with little in common except that they all still live with the unhealthy legacies of their childhood with the mother they’ve come to bury.

Teresa is seemingly content with her second marriage and health food business though an obsessive over-organizer. Mary  is a vaguely discontented successful doctor with an equally successful lover Mike, who is, alas, married. Catherine is the youngest and most immature who binges on shopping for inappropriate clothes, go nowhere love affairs, and drugs. There’s also the about to be buried mum Vi.  This ghostly vision in green tafetta is visible and audible only to Mary though her influence and demand to be understood rather than buried and forgotten is driving the oldest and youngest sister as well.

A ghost story? Not really. A tragedy? Yes, in that all daughters and mothers who fail to successfully navigate the troubling shores of love and antagonism also tend to fail in establishing healthy and enduring connections with sisters and lovers. A comedy? Yes again. Laughter is as much a guest at this funeral as grief.

One of the biggest laughs is provoked by the oldest sister Teresa’s husband Frank.  Teresa, who’s temporarily abandoned her health food regime to take more than a few drinks (as well as puffs from her younger sister’s reefer) has thrown the already tense family group into a dither by bringing sister Mary’s long-buried past into the present. This rouses the usually docile and silent Frank to declare “I hated Hannah and Her Sisters. I hate Woody Allen.’  What he really hates is his life, and particularly his marriage, which began with a date on which he pretended to like the movie.

But while Frank may hate Allen’s classic, Stephenson’s funny and often affecting tragi-comedy might well be deemed a homage to it. Within the narrower framework of a couple of days (Hannah stretches over three Thanksgiving gatherings) and the single visual focal point of the dead mother’s bedroom (Hannah roams all over Manhattan), Memory echoes that movie’s primary theme: The attempt by three sisters to deal with the fallout of their shared but differently remembered family history.

While there are other bits and pieces to validate this idea of homage, Memory is very much born out of Ms. Stephenson’s own viewpoint and voice. It is a viewpoint which ties these women’s choices in life styles and men directly to the patterns growing out of the troublesome maternal tie — the unconscious gestures, the knotty antagonistic love that needs sorting out along with the clothes in Mum’s armoire. It is a voice that expresses itself with dialogue that has genuine sparkle ( especially the “gallows humor” lines) and that brings off the contrivance of the ghostly Vi while relegating the less successful dramatic devices to minor annoyances in a promising debut by a new playwright. One character declares early on in the play, “all memory is false” but your memory of this play will be more of its strengths than its weaknesses, its thought-provoking ideas rather than its cliches (i.e.: a tin that’s a Pandora’s box holding a long ago secret, a ticking biological clock, unreliable lovers, an extended drunk scene).

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