nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 15, 2005
Dianne Wiest's tour de force performance is the main reason you will want to see Memory House—she's showcased so impressively here that it's absolutely worth a look. She plays Maggie, a woman of perhaps fifty, and as soon as we see her come on stage with her hair askew and her clothes looking more than a little lived-in, we can tell that personal vanity and ego are not going to get in the way of the honest, deeply-felt, warmly witty performance that we will ultimately be witnessing.
Maggie, once a dancer, is now a harried office worker, a woman neither more nor less unhappy or uncomfortable with her place in life than the norm. Her problem, this evening, centers around her teenage daughter Katia. It's 9pm on New Years Eve, and the deadline for Katia to postmark her admissions application to a prestigious university is just three hours away. But Katia has still not finished the essay, which calls for her to describe her "memory house"—the virtual structure where she stores her memories, dreams, and aspirations. She's blocked, or says she is: Maggie needs to talk her out of her funk so that at least this one seemingly momentous decision won't be allowed to go the wrong way.
Playwright Kathleen Tolan has provided a setup that is, alas, not terribly plausible; the specific elements of Katia's "problem" don't really feel very convincing either, as they are revealed. Briefly: Katia is not Maggie's natural child; she was at an orphanage in Russia in the mid-1980s when Maggie and her then-husband decided, following years of traditional attempts, to adopt. Katia was about four or five years old at the time, and although her new parents encouraged her to learn about her own history and heritage (and to not lose her facility with the Russian language), she mostly didn't do any of this. Now, today, faced with the memory house question, she's mad—at herself, at her parents—for her lack of knowledge about who she is (though her actions peg her, with great precision, as a very typically spoiled American teenager).
So Katia rails and wails about not knowing her birth mother and how she and other Russian orphans are the spoils of Reagan's "war" against the Soviet Union and how America has turned into a terrible bully in the world community. Maggie—and many of us in the audience, myself included—can agree with much of what Katia says and might even be glad to chat with her about it. But, emphatically, not tonight: tonight she needs to stop whining and finish her stinking essay.
Maggie is much more patient than I would be in her shoes. Memory House resolves nothing about Katia's anxieties about her past or future, and certainly offers no useful prescriptions for improving the moral reputation of the United States in the international community, but it does succeed in demonstrating that its leading character is a remarkable mother. Maggie guides her adopted offspring through the little crisis with tremendous skill and love, and Katia is as good as in college by the time the curtain falls.
So the play exists fundamentally to give the actress playing Maggie a lot of great stuff to do, and Wiest carries it off masterfully. She delivers deadpan put-downs about her ex-husband with the same aplomb that she brings to narrating touching reminiscences about when she first picked up Katia at the hospital in Russia or her own long-dead aspirations for a career as a dancer. She sings, dances, and otherwise entertains herself with a casual naturalness that makes us achingly aware of Maggie's loneliness and her pluckily unresigned accommodation to same; in many of these moments I felt a gallantry in Maggie that reminded of The Glass Menagerie's Amanda Wingfield.
Most showily, Wiest makes a pie, from scratch and from start to finish, during the 80-minute running time of Memory House. She makes Maggie's ineptitude as a baker—this is, apparently, a freshman attempt—both hilarious and heart-warming; what could feel only like very obvious stage business designed to add some action to a rather inert dramatic setup becomes revelatory, giddy fun. (I found out from a staff member at Playwrights Horizons after the show that the pies are pretty tasty, too.)
I enjoyed spending the evening with Wiest, her vehicle's limitations notwithstanding. She is, as fans of her films know, a superb comedienne; her considerable abilities as a dramatic actress may be more of a surprise. Bravo to Playwrights Horizons for giving her a chance to flex her acting muscles in this sweet-natured (and by no means uninteresting) new play.