(Theater Review) ‘The Memory of Water’ at Shakespeare & Company

Corinna May as Mary in 'Memory of Water'
Corinna May as Mary in ‘Memory of Water’

The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson
Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
Runs through Sept 4, 2011


Review by Seth Rogovoy
Photos by Kevin Sprague/Courtesy Shakespeare & Company


(LENOX, Mass., July 21, 2011) – Never in memory has such a collective of serio-comic acting talent been put to such good use as in the ensemble production of The Memory of Water, written by Shelagh Stephenson and directed by Kevin G. Coleman, running now through September 4, 2011, at Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.

For the dream cast alone, including a bevy of Shakespeare & Company’s finest actors, including Annette Miller, Corinna May, Kristin Wold, Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Nigel Gore and Jason Asprey, it’s worth seeing the terrific tragicomedy. That it turns out that The Memory of Water provides these superb talents with the perfect material with which to strut their ample stuff, and that Coleman has corralled the abundance of talent onstage into a taut comic drama while allowing each individual performer to shine in her and his own way, is just all the more our ultimate good luck in what must be one of this summer’s most enjoyable evenings at the theater.

Kristin Wold, Corinna May and Elizabeth Aspenlieder in 'The Memory of Water'

Kristin Wold, Corinna May and Elizabeth Aspenlieder in 'The Memory of Water'

A kind of Chekhov-meets-Woody Allen set piece (Stephenson knowingly has one character mention Allen’s masterwork, Hannah and Her Sisters – an obvious touchpoint for this work – and does so deftly and comically, as the reference is to how much the individual hated the movie), The Memory of Water gathers three sisters (pace Chekhov) and the men in their lives (or those absent from their lives) to their childhood home in the countryside in the immediate aftermath of the death of their mother (played with appropriately ghostliness and lightness by Annette Miller in scenes that may just be projections of other characters memories or wishes).

The entire evening is played out in the confines of their mother’s bedroom, but far from being claustrophobic, both Stephenson and Coleman make ample use of all the theatrical possibilities available to a bedroom comedy, including comings-and-goings through the door and even the window, as well as effective dream sequences that take the play out of the realm of immediate realism and into the gauzy haze of, well, memory, as the title of the play suggests.

Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Jason Asprey in 'The Memory of Water'

Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Jason Asprey in 'The Memory of Water'

But without getting too bogged down with the play’s very worthy questioning of memory’s role in family relationships, functional, dysfunctional, or otherwise, the delights of this production are all immediate and in the flesh. May, Wold, and Aspenlieder are an astonishing triumvirate, utterly believable as flesh and blood, kith and kin, yet each drawn with remarkable precision – Wold, a nervous wreck of a naturopath who when push comes to shove, needs the escape provided by a bottle of whiskey and not homeopathic remedies; Aspenlieder, the needy, overlooked baby of the family whose innocence and naivete punctures some of her sisters’ more stuffy tendencies; and May, the complex, troubled and perhaps most intense of the three, perhaps most like her mother, in a performance of great and astonishing nuance in which the actress seemed to morph into late-era Diane Keaton right before our very eyes.

In secondary but essential roles, Nigel Gore and Jason Asprey were pitch-perfect as lover and husband, providing just the right notes of perspective on this nutty family that’s really no nuttier than any other family. There are secrets revealed that may shock, but none really so terrible as to put the proceedings into the realm of tragedy or melodrama; merely the sort of real stuff that is part of human life and with which memory and its opposites – repression and forgetting – plays tricks.

You couldn’t ask for a finer demonstration of the art of ensemble acting than that provided by this production of The Memory of Water. And you couldn’t ask for a funnier evening of serious theater; by the end, my face hurt from the continuous laughter the performers provided, including laughing through tears.


Seth Rogovoy is an award-winning cultural critic.



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