With only a handful of days left slipping between our fingers until the new year, Mother Road Theatre Company has produced a show that may be the best to come out of Albuquerque in 2011. Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water, directed by Mark Hisler and Vic Browder, is in one great eruption heartbreaking, fantastically funny and absolutely riveting.
First, a few words about Mother Road. Every time I write about this company, I have to talk about how outstanding it is, and that’s because it keeps proving itself through each performance. Although I have my favorites from its repertoire, there are no losers in the mix. Mother Road simply does not put on a bad show. For this reason, I was excited to sit down to their newest offering.
The entire play, set in a small English town in the mid-’90s, takes place in the bedroom of the main characters’ mother, who died just days before. Her three daughters have gathered to do the things that must be done when a parent passes: make funeral arrangements, sift through the remnants—both tangible and impalpable—of her life and their childhood, drink, divulge family secrets, and perhaps giggle for the sake of giggling.
Mary is a doctor five years into an affair with a married colleague, Mike. Teresa, the eldest, runs a natural remedies shop with her husband, Frank, yet remains more tightly wound than a rubber-band propeller on a toy airplane. Catherine, the youngest, floats through life in a haze of men and drugs in the hopes of stumbling upon happiness. Making occasional appearances in dreams or as a ghost is their mother, Vi, who looks back on her life and her offspring with a cocktail of nostalgia and regret.
Stephenson’s script is gorgeous and sharp, but it’s the actors who make this piece mesmerizing. Julia Thudium is breathtaking. As Mother Road’s artistic director, Thudium doesn’t appear on stage often, usually working behind the scenes. When she does take on roles, she easily proves herself one of the finest actors in Albuquerque. In her turn as Mary, she’s cynical and sarcastic, but that doesn’t hide that she still clutches onto her dreams, which seem to mercilessly dissipate more every year. In one of the show’s most dramatic moments, it’s nearly impossible to will back your tears while watching her. Thudium delivers those pangs of anguish so gracefully, however, that they feel like catharsis. Somehow, there’s solace in being forced to experience that kind of emotion.
The rest of the cast is also brilliant. Wendy Scott fills the role of responsible and nervous Teresa perfectly. Fellow actor Pip Lustgarten (which, it must be noted, is a fantastic name) makes playing Catherine look effortless even through the character’s many turbulent switches in temperament. Albuquerque theater veteran Tom Schuch is wonderful, as always. He manages to make his character Mike likable, despite that he’s been cheating on his sick wife for half a decade and has been leading our heroine on for just as long. It’s always a pleasure to watch Morse Bicknell (Mother Road’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane) on stage, who’s charming as ever as Frank. And Vivian Nesbitt as Vi gives a touching performance, leading the audience through bouts of laughter as well as a few more tears.
The setup for The Memory of Water is simple, but the show speaks to some of the key facets of human experience: loss, hope, fear, love and the unquenchable, sometimes irrational, desire for more. Stephenson’s piece seems like an appropriate play for this time of year, which has a way of heightening our joys and heartaches. Don’t go because you want to feel warm and fuzzy. Go because you want to feel.