Memory Lane is a blocked road for high-school senior Katia, who’s asked to pound on the barricade for a college-application essay that must be postmarked by midnight tonight, New Year’s Eve. The tension also manifests itself — as it will in teens — in pounding on Mom, the only other character in the room, though absent Dad and the fragmented ghosts of an earlier life loom large. For her part, Mom, divorced and pithily despondent, has chosen this holiday eve to discover her inner Martha Stewart and has set out, apparently for the first time, to bake a pie. In the 80 minutes that this culinary exercise requires, Kathleen Tolan’s Memory House (at Trinity Repertory Company through January 6) unfolds in real time, with more leaking around the edges than just blueberry syrup.
BY THE BOOK: The play may be a recipe, but the execution has zing.
Memory House is hardly a mansion of a dramaturgical edifice. Commissioned by Trinity Rep but first performed at Actors Theatre of Louisville and Playwrights Horizons, the mother-daughter drama is a sort of ’night, Mother Lite, lacking life-and-death stakes (though tell that to any frenzied family trying to extrude a college-application essay). But it is not without its graces, and they are fully realized at Trinity in a production helmed by artistic director Curt Columbus and held in perfect balance by veteran Anne Scurria and recent Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium grad Susannah Flood, the luminously awkward Emily of last season’s Our Town. Moreover, Eugene Lee’s slightly surreal setting, which floats the untidy living room and kitchen of a New York apartment under clinical lights flipped on and off by one of the actors and before a chalkboard backdrop bearing a childish doodle, lets you know that there is more going on here than a naturalistic display of pastry making and procrastination.
Tolan set out to explore the politics of international adoption. (Issues of parenting and adoption figure in several of her plays, including Approximating Mother and A Girl’s Life.) Katia was adopted at the age of six from an orphanage in Omsk. Indeed, Memory House begins with a grainy video of a child in an old-fashioned dress bouncing a ball and speaking in Russian — a sort of Wednesday’s Child–like parent-seeking advertisement. Now, the girl caught on the tape, spurred by her politically correct professor father, can’t decide whether she was rescued from a miserable life or stolen from a “bleeding” country by capitalist imperialists. “I’m your loot,” she informs the mother who wants the best for her but must tiptoe about the minefield of her daughter’s adolescent angst, which in Katia’s case is complicated by her feeling torn between a culture she can’t remember and one she’s rebelling against. The irony is that this teen, whatever her gene pool, is very much an American one, rolling her eyes and slouching around the place in a Ramones T-shirt, rap rolling out of stereo and earphones.
But as a certified mother of daughters, Tolan creates a snapshot in which the emotions are in sharper focus than the ideas Katia and Maggie, a former dancer/choreographer turned office worker, try on. Of course, Katia being a kid, she’s in deadly earnest about her assertions, no matter how jumbled or conflicting. Maggie, carrying on a droll dialogue with Joy of Cooking author Irma Rombauer (whose tome is on the table declaring pie crust “the passport to matrimony),” is more tongue-in-cheek. What’s good about this production is that each character gives as good as she gets — in both feistiness and soulfulness. Scurria’s acerb Maggie is not all warmth and doormat devotion, and Flood balances her exquisitely realized, age-appropriate obnoxiousness with an almost bereft identity insecurity no amount of mothering can soothe. At the same time, there is great physical ease and intimacy between the two, whether they’re rolling around the kitchen floor or taking the gloves off.
Still, Memory House feels studied — a bit like a paint-by-numbers daubing its way toward an inevitable reconciliation. As certainly as we know that the slapped-together pie, exuding aroma as it bakes, will come out of the oven at the end, we know that we will hear that college essay and that it, like the pie, will be imperfect but forgiving.