By Russ Bickerstaff
There are only two people in the cast: mother and daughter. Mother and daughter have an extended dialogue. The mother is baking a pie. The daughter is working on an essay for a college application. The play carries along for just over an hour. There is no intermission. This probably doesn’t sound all that engaging. It is. Renaissance Theaterworks proves that something as simple as a conversation between two people can be solidly entertaining theatre with its production of Kathleen Tolan’s contemporary drama Memory House.
The stage is set as a modest apartment. There’s just enough evidence of life to suggest a cozy domestic space, pictures and books adorn a small bookcase in the living room. Cristina Panfilio rests on a couch in front of a laptop. She’s playing Katia, a girl on the verge of adulthood trying to figure out who she is before she leaves home for college. Linda Stephens plays her mother Maggie, a clever, educated woman on the verge of being the sole parent in an empty nest. She’s divorced. Her daughter feels as though she isn’t living up to her potential. She’s afraid that when she goes off to college, her mother will become completely withdrawn from the world.
Performing from what appears to be a very lived-in set, Panfilio and Stephens develop a very authentic chemistry. Panfilio puts in a sympathetic performance as Katia. While Tolan’s dialogue is very intricate the role could’ve easily been read as a somewhat whiny teenager. However, Panfillo’s performance is very insightful. She never exaggerates the mannerisms of youth. Likewise, Stephens puts in a textured performance as Maggie. The role could’ve easily read as a 2-dimensionally wise old woman in many places throughout the dialogue. Stephens plays many angles of an aging divorcee who just might be settling for less than what she deserves professionally.
Music choices are particularly clever in this production and flesh out the characters in an interesting way. In conversation, Katia holds a great deal of respect for her father, the college professor, but whenever he calls her cell phone the ring-tone that we hear is Green Day’s “American Idiot.” Every time he calls, we hear the rhythmic pop punk refrain, “don’t want to be an American Idiot.” Quite a few layers of meaning could be inferred from the character’s choice in ring-tone. Clever.
Over the course of the play, Stephens is, in fact, baking a blueberry pie. The oven in the kitchen onstage appears to be a working oven. As Katia continues to put off work on her essay, her mother challenges her to a race. Paper versus pie. While Stevens is actually working on a pie, Panfillio is not actually working on a paper, so this is a bit uneven with respect to actresses. It gets revealed somewhere along the line that, in the world of the play, Katia isn’t actually working on the essay either. What’s really at work here is whether or not Katia can muster up enough confidence to send it in. In order to that, she needs to coax the details of her past out of Maggie. Katia may find out that the answers aren’t easy in a predictable drama that is nonetheless fascinating. Director Laura Gordon has achieved something great here. VS
Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Memory House runs now through November 12 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. For more info call 414-291-7800 or visit www.r-t-w.com.