The question of identity haunts the nooks and crannies of Kathleen Tolan’s play “Memory House” which is enjoying a memorably professional and absorbing run at the Chester Theater Company through August 9.
It’s a two character work that concentrates on the relationship between a mother and daughter on a New Year’s Eve, a holiday associated with partying and festivities but simultaneously a downer particularly for those who are alone. New Year’s Eve is also associated with new beginnings, with the throwing out of the old year and the welcoming of the new one being an opportunity to make some changes in one’s life or even start over. The holiday is also a reminder about deadlines, as in completing the unfinished tasks of the previous year, or as one regards the passing of yet another year, a look at how much one has completed on his or her bucket list.
These themes and more weave through Tolan’s intermissionless one acter, expressed in a very personal way between Maggie, played most believably with hovering maternal charm hiding burgeoning insecurities by TV and local theater favorite Debra Jo Rupp, and her adoptive teenage Russian daughter, Katia, played with on-target eye-rolling adolescent exasperation and honest yearning by newcomer Caitlyn Griffin in a spectacular and confident professional theater debut.
The plot finds Maggie prodding her daughter to complete her college application essay which needs to be postmarked by midnight, just as Katia rears and reacts to her mother’s pushiness. The parents are divorced, with Katia’s father already having a new girlfriend, and Maggie, still not fully recovered from the situation, resisting her daughter’s pleas to move on and get her own life. To that end, Maggie decides to bake a pie, surprising herself and her daughter since she has not been known for her cooking skills. Maggie has no other plans for New Year’s Eve, though Katia is hoping to meet up with some high school friends several of whom have also waited until the last minute to complete their essays.
As mother and daughter discuss the essay, Katia brings up the subject of how to incorporate her status as a Russian adoptee into the theme. She questions her parents’ motives and wisdom in tearing her away from her native country and introducing her to a culture and language that were foreign to her. She is curious about her native land, which her parents have been quite open about, and even at one point threatens to return to Russia with a fellow adoptee that the family has known since the beginning. Maggie, however, does not want to waste time discussing this issue but instead wants to make sure that the essay is completed, so that Katia will get into college, which Maggie sees as the best hope for her daughter’s future, particularly since Maggie herself never got a degree, retired from dancing to raise her daughter, and now finds herself lost career-wise following the divorce.
Over the course of the play, the mother and daughter discuss their own insecurities within their relationship, eventually reassuring each other of their deep love and respect. Katia may, in part, be worried about how her mother will function on her own alone with her gone, while Maggie is fearful that her daughter may sacrifice her future to hang around her mother. They ultimately engage in a brief game that genuinely reflects the deep bond between the two, betting on who will finish first—Maggie’s pie or Katia’s essay.
Tolan’s play is really deceptively simple, as it does manage to cover a lot of ground in a parent-child relationship, particularly one with such a history as this one. Director Sheila Sirgusa manages to keep the evening interesting as Maggie and Katia parry, deny, withdraw, accuse and argue in a fairly constant flow of conversation that reveals more and more about the life the two have shared. Rupp and Griffin are remarkably convincing as the related pair, conveying their banter in the shades of warmth and irritation that mark a comfortable, forgiving, and loving relationship. While an audience may be concerned at first about just how sturdy this relationship really is, Rupp and Griffin ultimately convey the deep-seated attachment that continues to exist, despite the various impending changes. In the end, one can feel the warmth that fills the space between them on this cold New York New Year’s Eve.
Especially impressive is Geoffrey Ehrendreich’s marvelous set for Maggie’s apartment. It has a row of windows that look out onto a New York street, in front of which are a kitchen island, oven and cabinets along a side wall, a small adjacent living room with couch and coffee table around which are strewn loads of opened books that Katia has apparently been using for her essay. There are a number of bookshelves filled to the edges with books behind which is hidden a box containing ephemera from the orphanage where Katia was adopted, which Katia claims to be uninterested in or even resentful of.
Sarah Nelson’s costumes highlight the generational differences between the two women, down to their coats hanging on the coat rack on the right side of the stage. James McNamara’s lighting shows off the apartment to its best advantage, while Tom Shread’s sound design accommodates Katia’s contemporary preferences and their ability to keep out any aural intrusions, as well as her mother’s more familiar selections.
The play opens with an impressive video created by Jason Czaja that captures the confusion and reluctance of a young Katia in the orphanage at the time of the adoption, with the notion that this may be the young woman’s earliest and only memory of her time in Russia, which has only added to her questions about how and why her mother left her, and how she has dealt with those feelings of abandonment throughout her young life, despite the best efforts of her parents to acclimate her to American life. Tolan has Katia speak in perfect high school educated English with all the requisite teenage buzzwords and inflections, with the only reminder of her native roots being her name.
At its heart, though, “Memory House,” which takes its title from the suggested theme for the essay by the colleges using the unified application form, is about a mother and daughter sorting through the memories of their years together and trying on their own to figure out their next steps as independent women. And on those terms, the slender evening works out just fine.
For tickets and information, call the CTC box office at 413.354.7770 or visit the theater’s website at www.chestertheatre.org.