Three sisters converge for their mother’s funeral in “The Memory of Water,” a first play from Shelagh Stephenson that evokes numerous memories, not all of them helpful. This is the sort of play you feel you’ve seen before, and the truth is that you have — on TV. Though the tonier comparisons might be to Catherine Hayes (“Skirmishes”), Edward Albee or even Chekhov, the abiding feel is of a wearyingly bitchy sitcom.
“I hated ‘Hannah and Her Sisters,’ I hate Woody Allen,” one character confesses late on, and well he might, since the very real comic pathos of that film finds scant equivalent here.
The play is set in a cliff-top bungalow on the northeastern coast of England — Scarborough, presumably — where both the shore and sibling ties are being rapidly eroded. Outside, it’s snowing; inside, the mood is icily barbed. Oldest sister Mary (Haydn Gwynne), a doctor, lolls in her deceased mother’s bed swigging whiskey and receiving visitations from her mom, Vi (Mary Jo Randle). (The suitably spectral lighting is by Robert Bryan.)
Middle child Teresa (Jane Booker), a putative teetotaler, recites recipes under stress and eagerly hits the bottle. Wild woman Catherine (Matilda Ziegler) matches the others putdown for putdown and grabs for the phone in the hope that her errant Spanish boyfriend might be calling to offer support, and sex. Though “Pepe,” as he is mockingly called, never appears, the older sisters’ partners do. Mike (Alexander Hanson), a doctor well-known on TV, is keen to lend support to his lover, Mary, but not to leave his wife, which is the thing Mary needs most if she is to have a child. Frank (Dermot Crowley) joins spouse Teresa after a 14-hour flight from Dusseldorf during which he sat next to “a woman from Carlisle who runs a puppet theater for the deaf.”
Stephenson’s choice of detail would seem to indicate a fondness for life’s absurdities, but the details themselves too often seem absurd. That the funeral director had a plastic hand is one of several eccentric touches that seem willed rather than truthful: Beth Henley gone off the boil.
Stephenson used to be an actress, and she is accordingly generous, giving each performer a big scene or two. But few could counter the staginess of mother-as-apparition, a projection of the haunted Mary, who gets the majority of the play’s musings on memory. (Stephenson’s metaphoric equation, inspired by a British TV documentary about the properties of water, makes Vi the “water” whose presence cannot be altered or diluted, no matter how much her children try to filter out her memory.) Gwynne, a first-rate actress, must also work through several second-act revelations that overload the play; her talk of “a half-imagined childhood” poignantly evokes the resonant drama that elsewhere remains half-written.
In a play like his own superb “Dead Funny,” director Terry Johnson made comedy and cruelty flip sides of the same bitter coin, and “Memory of Water” clearly wants to strike a comparable delicate balance. But for every stiff encounter Johnson stages another — the coffin-carrying, for one — that is disconcertingly broad. Was the intention to jettison the cliches of the memory play, atmosphere and wistfulness included? The result is a play top-heavy with metaphor and spare on feeling; in the juggling act between the serious and the comic, it’s the laugh track that has won.