note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
Accomplished Boston Director Melia Bensussen wields her magic wand over Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Kathleen Tolan’s “Memory House,” evoking sparkling performances from its two stars, Susan Pellegrino and Rebecca Blumhagen.
Their spot-on timing during the 77-minute, one-act exchange between divorced, complacent mother Maggie (Pellegrino) and her adopted 18-year-old, angst-ridden Russian daughter, Katia, is realistically endearing. With Judy Gailen’s split set, dividing the stage between the contemporary, cramped, New York apartment kitchen and living room, and lighting designer Brian Lilienthal ‘s switching from one room to another, the women’s personalities unravel.
This is capped off by a dramatic opening, as a pretty little girl’s image flashes on an opaque screen, echoing off the back wall. She’s 6-year-old Katia (Jocelyn Vogel), a large-eyed, bewildered child, prettily dressed up in a red plaid dress, who’s leaving her Russian orphanage to go to a strange land, America, with a strange couple, claiming in a strange language to be her new parents.
As the scrim rises, young Katia’s image fades, morphing into animated, tensed-up teen-age Katia, as “Memory House” fast-forwards to this New Year’s Eve, and a moment in time, of truth, and self-awareness. Sounds great, right?
There’s so much fodder here,but it doesn’t get beyond that kitchen and living room.
Although this production is laudatory, Tolan’s play whets our appetite, then falls short.
Lithe, middle-aged mother Maggie, a former dancer with her own school, has resigned herself to being a part-time secretary, busying herself with domestic tasks, like baking a blueberry pie for the first time. Maggie spends most of the time reading the recipe, discussing its history and importance to society, while she prepares and bakes it onstage. She’s also urging Katia to write her college application essay, which must be mailed within three hours, before the new year deadline.
Meanwhile, Katia, wrestling with her inner struggles, stamps and struts, paces, languishes, argues and verbally assails her mother for not having higher goals. Katia attacks the US government, its effects on her native Russia, imagines her life if she remained in Russia, and vents her frustration at knowing almost nothing about her natural parents. “How can I want anything if I don’t know who I am?” she rages, saying she can’t remember anything about the orphanage.
Maggie understands. She small talks, comforts, cajoles, reminisces, pleads with Katia to finish her essay, while Maggie’s creative triumph - that blueberry pie - is baking.
Katia conjures up her “memory palace,” a method of memory visualization to capture details of memories. Together, they pull out Katia’s memory box, filled with the dress she wore, the teddybear she held, and other childhood memorabilia.
Katia finally relents, reads her essay to Maggie, then happily flits off to mail it.
Yet, there’s so much more to this story. Somewhere, Maggie lost her ambition and self-confidence. She also lost her husband, a brilliant professor, to a younger woman, yet she’s content.
On the other hand, Katia’s issues dissipate into thin air. Like many thousands of Americans who traveled to Russia to adopt needy children, some are successful, some sad, but are fascinating, worth further exploration.
Maybe that’ll be Tolan’s sequel.
BOX INFO: One-act play by Kathleen Tolan, at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack St., Lowell to Nov. 18: Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 p.m.,Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; post-show discussion Nov. 15. Tickets start at $20; discounts for seniors, students and groups. Visit MRT.org or call the Box Office at 978-654-4678. Groups of six or more, call 978-654-7651.