The three sisters who are the central characters of Shelaugh Stephenson's The Memory of Water at first appear to having nothing in common except their family ties. The caustic dialogue reveals unresolved conflicts that go back to childhood and the different roles each woman has pursued in life and love. But the dialogue also contains much humor and insight that finally leads to acceptance.

The play is Riverside Theatre's fifth production of the season and was originally produced in 1996 by the Hamstead Theatre in London, and then by the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1998. Set in an unnamed coastal village in northern England, Stephenson's play is a powerful family saga.

The death of the mother, Vi, prompts the homecoming of three sisters: Theresa, the martyr caregiver; Mary, the workaholic unmarried physician; and Catherine, the perennially in-love and most dysfunctional member of the family.

A grueling snowstorm strands the sisters in the house, and when the mother's coffin is delivered for a family wake the night before the funeral and cremation service, it prompts arguments, conversations, and finally a deeper appreciation of the strengths and foibles of each member of the family.

Theresa, played with icy control by Riverside co-artistic director Jody Hovland, is the daughter who has cared for Vi during her waning years. She and husband Frank (portrayed by Scott Hughes and by far the most sympathetic character in the play) have a health-food business that seems to provide neither health nor well-being to either member of the couple. Theresa confesses that she can't drink, and then proceeds to monopolize the bottle of whiskey her sister Mary has brought to provide the necessary anesthetic for coping with the funeral and the family.

Mary, a single woman and physician, cares more for her patients than for any member of her family and reveals a dark secret as the play progresses. The youngest sister, Catherine, is a strung-out, self-centered woman who might still be a teenager, except the number of men she has loved identify a woman at least pushing 30. She rants, she raves, she demands, and she provides much of the comic pulse of the play.

Utilmately, the things that make The Memory of Water so memorable and enduring are the sharing of family dramas known and unknown, the hilarious scenes of conflict and their resolutions, and the growing acceptance of idiosyncrasies that brings the sisters together by play's end. Their memories reflect their own distinct points of view and never completely agree; but we come to appreciate the different versions of the stories told, just as we grow to respect the characters on stage.

Much of the credit goes to playwright Stephenson, who has created a minor masterpiece, but the actors bring each character to life with compassion, deep insight, and the comic timing necessary to propel the story along.

The Memory of Water runs through February 17th at the Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. For ticket information, call (319)338-7672 during box-office hours, Monday through Friday after noon. The theatre's next production, Emily Dickinson & I, runs February 28 through March 3, with only four performances.

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