Theater Review: Very Fond Memories of Water

This is highly satisfying evening of light theater that provokes its audience to bursts of recognition, laughter, and sorrow in quick succession.

The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson. Directed by Kevin G. Coleman. Staged by Shakespeare and Company at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA, through September 4.

By Helen Epstein

A scene from THE MEMORY OF WATER at Shakespeare and Company. Photo: Kevin Sprague

My summer theater season started on a high note this weekend in Lenox, MA, with Shakespeare & Company’s (S & Co.’s) production of Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water. A family drama about three sisters who assemble in their recently deceased mother’s bedroom, their current intimate relationships, and the complications of selective memory, it’s a play that provokes its audience to bursts of recognition, laughter, and sorrow in quick succession.

Memory was first staged in London in 1996 and produced in New York two years later. It has held up well and provides an excellent dramatic vehicle for veteran Shakespeare & Company director Kevin Coleman and six of his colleagues, equally practiced S & Co. actors. These are actors who have been performing Shakespeare together for years, and their ease with language, movement, and one another is evident.

Watching them perform at close range in the small Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre is an unmitigated pleasure. The show is long by current theater norms (two and one quarter hours plus intermission running time), but though I winced at a few over-hammy moments and lines that have, with the passage of 15 years, become cliches, I was never bored.

Coleman’s characteristically antic direction keeps things moving, and fans of actors Corinna May, Kristin Wold, Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Annette Miller, Nigel Gore, and Jason Asprey will not be disappointed as their favorites speak in Yorkshire accents. Although the action sometimes slips into the formulas of television sit-com, all the actors manage to make each character indelibly their own. I found May as the doctor-daughter and Asprey as the exhausted and loving husband of the health food fanatic daughter particularly affecting in their roles.

At a time when so many casts seem to be reverting to pre-feminist ratios of men to women, this is the rare play that includes four meaty female roles: the three sisters range in age from 30 to 50. The ghost of the mother is 75.

The work of the design team is, as I’ve come to expect at S & Co., excellent. This is a highly satisfying evening of light theater.

Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and the translator of Vlasta Schoenova’s Acting in Terezin.

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