In Shelagh Stephenson's play three sisters estranged by old grudges and secrets come together in their mother's home in the 24 hours before her funeral. They congregate in her bedroom, arguing, drinking too much, and trying on her clothes. Everywhere is physical evidence of the deceased (artfully strewn by scenic designer Barbara-Julie Miller), but in the sisters' collective memory there is little solid ground. As they battle with one another, they also struggle toward a consensus as to who their mother was and what, if anything, might remain of her. Unstoppable once it hits its stride, Stuart Rogers' production gracefully navigates the emotional curves of Stephenson's text, which pitch from lethargy to hilarity to utter despair, and his cast is excellent.
Its title based on the scientific observation that water can retain the properties of a curative element added to it, even after that element has been removed, the play explores the idiosyncratic power of memory from its core to its incidental gestures. Middle sister Mary (Karen S. Gregan), a doctor specializing in neurological disorders, obsesses over a young patient with post-traumatic amnesia. Eldest sister Teresa (Lily Knight), who cared for her mother in the late stages of Alzheimer's, can't remember what she's doing without a list but recites detailed recipes as a form of meditation. There are conflicting accounts of the sisters' childhood. Sympathy cards arrive from forgotten neighbors. And to the chagrin of Catherine (Carolyn Barnes), the youngest, no one can seem to remember her boyfriend's name; not incidentally, he drops out of the picture.
The nature of genetic memory is of particular interest to Mary, who, as she tries to pin down her recollection of her mother, also dreams of the son she gave up for adoption more than 20 years prior, wondering if he holds any trace of her. Carefully defined by Rogers with the help of John Lant's lighting, the episodes in which Mary actually converses and finally reconciles with a 40-year-old version of her mother (played without a false step by Sarah Scivier) are quite powerful. Knight commands the stage in the latter half of Act One, when half a bottle of Dewar's transforms her character from careworn martyr to raving lunatic. And as needy, saucy, pot-smoking Catherine, Barnes owns much of the play's funniest material, bringing it to life in magnetic, neurotic form.
In its imagery and its concerns, Stephenson's is a decidedly feminine play, and its male characters—Teresa's husband (a brilliantly deadpan Steve Hofvendahl) and Mary's married lover (the apt Steve O'Connor)—are kept on the periphery of its main confidences. Like all of the sisters' preferences and gestures, they hint at an unconscious legacy.
"The Memory of Water," presented by Theatre Tribe and Circle West at the Jewel Box Theater Center, 1951 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Nov. 2-Dec. 15. $15. (323) 769-7060.