Nancy Grossman, November 2, 2012

MEMORY HOUSE by Kathleen Tolan

It is New Year’s Eve in New York City, but there are no revelers, no Dick Clark , and no mention of Times Square in Kathleen Tolan’s Memory House at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. It feels like an ordinary winter night anywhere in middle America where an age-old tug of war is taking place between a divorced mother and her adopted teenage daughter as the latter struggles to complete her college application essay before the midnight deadline. You know the drill: Mother asks, “Did you finish?” Daughter responds, “No,” and they’re off, hurtling down a slippery slope of family memories that will cause some emotional bumps and bruises along the way, but ultimately take them to the place where they both need to be.

As 18-year old Katia tries to figure out who she is before going out into the world, Maggie realizes that she must also redefine herself when the nest is emptied, so she decides to bake a pie. If that sounds anti-feminist, bear in mind that Maggie is a non-traditional type who used to be a dancer/choreographer and sees the baking as a creative outlet. It also helps to ground her during the evening’s highly-charged conversation with Katia, when Maggie’s questions, advice, and cajoling are met with sarcasm, eye-rolling, accusations, and silence.

Katia’s task is complicated by the fact of her adoption from Russia when she was six years old. The assignment on the essay being to write about a “memory house” causes Katia anxiety because she cannot make a visual connection to her early life, claiming to have no memories other than the story her parents concocted for her. Rebecca Blumhagen is spot on in her portrayal of the mélange of emotions coursing through this teenager. Her nonverbal communications speak volumes; in addition to the aforementioned eye-rolling, she flops herself onto the couch, twirls her hair around her finger, nervously bounces her leg, and exhales with an obvious huff, to mention but a few examples.

Susan Pellegrino shows Maggie’s amazing patience and persistence, albeit peppered with a bit of her own sarcasm, and manages to convey a constant undercurrent of love for her daughter even while on the receiving end of an outburst. Her character wanted a child, whether or not she knew how to be a mother, and whether or not her marriage was sustainable. She knows she made mistakes, but everything she has done for Katia was out of love. The greatest measure of her love is her ability to put aside her own fear and pain as she faces the approaching transition in order to provide comfort and strength to her daughter. Regardless of how disparate their views of the past may be, they can rest assured that they face the uncertain future together.

Director Melia Bensussen guides Memory House with a velvet-gloved hand, ascribing equal shares of affection and culpability to both characters, like a mother refusing to choose favorites between her own children. Judy Gailen’s set evokes the last-minute crunch with the sofa as ground zero and bits and pieces of Katia’s life strewn about the small apartment. Maggie sets up shop in the galley kitchen where she can bake and banter at the same time. Lighting Designer Brian Lilienthal gives the room a soft warmth that corresponds with the underlying mother-daughter dynamic. Gailen doubles as costume designer and Seághan McKay is projection designer.

Memory House is another fine example of the kind of play that MRT excels at presenting. With a unit set and only two characters, it is a small, slice-of-life story. However, with its concise plot and well-written dialogue, with the cohesive pairing of Blumhagen and Pellegrino, and with Bensussen’s observant direction, Memory House becomes an intimate experience. Seated in the darkened theater, we’re watching two fine actresses on the stage, but we’re also revisiting our own memories.