Memory House, by Kathleen Tolan. Directed by Sheila Saragusa. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Debra Jo Rupp and Caitlyn Griffin; photo: provided
". . .stuff I should be able to rise above."
Debra Jo Rupp and Caitlyn Griffin; photo: provided
It isn't every day that I see the same show twice at two different theaters in two different formats by two different playwrights and two different directors. Especially when one is a straightforward play and the other is an abstruse musical. Thursday, July 30, 2015 was just such a day. "Memory House" by Kathleen Tolan at the Chester Theatre came first at a matinee followed by "John & Jen" by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald at the Theater Barn in the evening. Both feature only two actors; both deal with a parent trying to come to grips with the realities of a teenager. Both are troubled plays and both are rewarding and enriching experiences, each in its own separate fashion. They both even feature an actress named Caitlyn. You will read of one here and the other in its proper spot on the site. I hope you will read both for they now exist for me as inseparable.
It is New Years Eve in an apartment in New York City. Maggie, played by Debra Jo Rupp, and her adopted daughter Katia, played by Caitlin Griffin, are together in Maggie's west side apartment; neither one has a date. Maggie is baking a blueberry pie and Katia is not writing her college entrance essay. Neither one is happy dealing with their minor problems, but Katia wants to address larger issues and while Maggie isn't interested in this, she cannot help but be drawn by her daughter's need. Two strong women, each with her own style of handling issues, come to grips with the mother/child relationship that is so important to them both.
Three large windows in this efficiency apartment look out over the cold city but no views other than internal ones are permitted in this play. Geoffrey Ehrendreich's realistic set offers a lot of distractions for both women and furniture, kitchen counters, windows and shelves are all integral pieces of the emotional puzzle that plays out between them. Land line phones and cell phones factor into the play as do home movies, childhood souvenirs and computers. Like so many people today Katia and her mother are swamped by things that can both open windows on the emotional world and at the same time formally shut out more important issues.
Caitlyn Griffin plays Katia with the energy of a teenager and the catlike grace of a dancer. When she moves from her selected spot on the couch it is with the precision of a pouncing cat. When she stares at her mother it is with the icy glare of a predator at one point and with the caressing glance of a thwarted lover at another. Internal conflict radiates from her. Her very desperate need is remarkably played by Griffin from start to finish and when she reveals something she has hidden it is with a freshness that brings a sigh from the audience. This is a very talented young actress undertaking a most complex role and doing it justice.
She has as a playing mate Debra Jo Rupp who brings to Maggie the special sparkle Rupp has displayed before in other roles. Here, however, it is directed at one person and one alone and when she darkens and allows other moods to reign she is as strong a personality as anyone has been in a long time. She brings to mind actresses such as Geraldine Page and Marian Seldes who could move through emotional states at a feverish pace and never leave the audience wondering about the reality of so many changes. As Maggie she deals with those personal choices that aren't often addressed out loud. Her inner contemplation is forced into outer utterances and she allows them out freely in this hard year-end challenge match. Rupp is more powerful here than she has been in many other works, but she is still the delightful character actress as she sends Maggie into the kitchen to deal with pie. In a script that could become maudlin that is never even approached thanks to Rupp's interpretation of Maggie.
Director Sheila Siragusa has worked well with her two actresses, investing in both of them equally and creating an on stage equation of strong characters. Katia is old beyond her years and Maggie is younger than she ought to be and so with Siragusa guidance they meet on this classic playing field as equals who must conquer. That both do is a miracle that belong to a director who has seen the possibilities and produced them through two delicious talents.
The production is solid with a wonderful set, realistic and practical, costumes by Sarah Nelson that belong with their characters and lighting by James McNamara that highlights each actress and each scene nicely. Tom Shread, sound designer, is the only person who breaks the reality of the play by keeping a cell phone ring in one spot on stage even though the phone itself is in many locales when it supposedly rings.
This is a very captivating play and well worth seeing, particularly with this cast. You may not learn much about these sorts of relationships but you will know a lot about these two specific women by the end the hour and twenty-nine minutes. This is well worth your time.
Memory House plays through August 9 at the Chester Theater in the Town Hall in Chester, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-354-7770 or go on line at www.chestertheatre.org.