***With Apologies to Merrimack Repertory Theatre and the cast of Memory House, this review was intended to be published during the October/November run****
by Kathleen Tolan
Directed by Melia Bensussen
presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
50 E. Merrimack Street
Lowell, Massachusetts 01852
October 25th – November 18th, 2012
Merrimack Repertory Theatre Facebook Page
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Lowell) Family dramas on stage and screen are filled with “explanation” moments, when a parent is called out by a now-grown child to explain the who, what and where, when, how and why of family history. The explanation moment can be a blessing or a curse, as it hits home for parents just how much they’ve screwed up their children’s lives while also giving them the chance to make their cases before the court. This theatrical device can be used sloppily for Lifetime dramas or effectively for Oscar-bait movies.
Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Memory House plays like one long explanation moment, and that is both its strength and weakness. It is a begrudging conversation between a mother and her adopted daughter about the daughter’s feelings of estrangement from the family, an issue that comes to head as a college essay deadline looms. From the beginning, the tension built between the two characters, the mother Maggie (Susan Pellegrino) and the daughter Katia (Rebecca Blumhagen), is palatable, and when the family’s problems come to light in the first act, parent in the audience can’t help but lean forward or cringe backwards in their seats.
But the play fails to build on that initial momentum, and while it deserves kudos for portraying how little progress most families make in resolving these issues, it doesn’t make for the best theatre. Worse, the lack of progress throughout most of the play makes the final resolution too neat and tidy. Director Melia Bensussen fails to capture the thin script’s emotional arc, and we are stuck in a room with a worried mother and a restless teen for a few hours.
Pellegrino makes things watchable, however, by creating an eccentric mother who is spinning her wheels while trying not to meddle. And the star of the night is Judy Gailen’s set, which first appears to go for utilitarian realism, but slowly evolves before our eyes to vividly illustrate the separate spheres of thought between mother and daughter.