The most obvious point of reference for Lee Blessing’s new drama “A Body of Water” is Eugene Ionesco’s “The Chairs.” In Ionesco’s play, an aged couple is trapped on an island lighthouse; in Blessing’s, a middle-aged man and woman awake one morning to find themselves in an unfamiliar house on a mountain surrounded by water. But where “The Chairs” plays the absolute isolation of its characters as absurdist farce, Blessing uses this lonely island aerie as the central metaphor in a quietly unsettling existential mystery.
Blessing’s two principal characters (played in this Guthrie premiere by Edward Herrmann and Michael Learned) are adrift in more ways than one. Both, it seems, are suffering from recursive amnesia. Like the unfortunate hero of the film “Memento,” they face each new day as a tabula rasa, reconstructing their identities from fragmented memories and scraps of evidence found around the house.
Though their barbed banter suggests the bickering familiarity of a long-married couple, the man and woman don’t even know their own names, much less their relationship to one another.
Herrmann and Learned, both accomplished TV and film actors, mine the mordant humor inherent in these early scenes. There’s a funny moment, for instance, in which the two perfect strangers gingerly examine each other’s bodies for telltale physical characteristics. Shambling around in an expensive silk bathrobe with his leonine head hanging, Herrmann cuts a particularly fine shaggy-dog figure.
Into this house of splendid isolation steps a young woman calling herself Wren (Michelle O’Neill). Cryptic and angry, she offers only tantalizing clues to the couple’s identity. Is she a dutiful daughter tending to parents who are wandering in the fog of dementia? Or is she, as she also claims, an attorney defending clients who have repressed an unspeakable sin by wiping their memories clean?
Perhaps she is an otherworldly interrogator, and this house surrounded by water is some manner of Stygian waiting room. One thinks, naturally, of the river Lethe, which in Greek mythology ferried the dead into eternal forgetfulness.
Blessing lets all these possibilities linger in the air. Slowly and subtly, the playfulness of those early scenes gives way to a creeping sense of dread. Blessing’s amnesiacs are, like Pirandello characters, aware that they’re being pressed into service as fictional conceits in someone else’s script, but they’re too lost in the maze of their own identity to do anything about it. Unmoored from the world that gives it purpose, the mind becomes a prison.
This Guthrie production, directed by frequent Blessing collaborator Ethan McSweeny, develops an autumnal chill that nicely complements the play’s sorrowful undertow. Dead leaves swirl outside a giant picture window that overlooks an endless, indistinct expanse of water.
Matthew Reinert’s sensitive lighting design further mirrors the existential anxiety of the characters. Falling shadows hint at the primordial fear that night will swallow all memory.
“A Body of Water” is, obviously, a play rich in ideas about memory, identity and fiction. The three are bound in a Gordian knot, it turns out: Without the reference points of memory, identity is a fiction, yet memory itself is nothing more than a story we tell about the past. If Blessing doesn’t develop all these ideas as fully as he might, he does lay a rich philosophical groundwork for the play’s intrigue.
Given how effectively Blessing turns the screw on his characters, it’s actually a bit disappointing when their unusual situation turns out to have a basically reasonable explanation. If anything, this denouement is a bit too neat — a slick bait-and-switch on the order of M. Night Shyamalan.
Yet one can’t really begrudge Blessing his trail of red herrings. After all, Blessing’s artfully presented argument in “A Body of Water” is that memory itself is fluid, a slippery bit of flotsam to cling to in stormy seas.