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Toronto by Antonio Tan

The Memory of Water and
Enigma Variations

If death is a morbid issue, it doesn’t seem that way when watching The Memory of Water. The London production of the black comedy by Shelagh Stephenson recently won the 2000 Olivier Award for Best Comedy. The original Canadian production just reopened in Toronto (under the auspices of Mirvish Productions) at the 1,000-seat Winter Garden Theatre after a successful Canadian Premiere run at the much-smaller alternative Tarragon Theatre.

Directed by Jackie Maxwell, The Memory of Water is a wonderfully funny and poignant comedy about three sisters – Teresa, Mary and Catherine – who come together again when their mother dies of Alzheimer’s. It takes place on the eve of the funeral in the late mother’s bedroom in a cliff-top bungalow on the northeast coast of England during a snowstorm. They’re all pretty much trapped inside, and the play primarily centers around Mary, the second oldest.

L-R: Corrine Koslo (Vi), Martha Burns (Mary), Kristen Thomson (Catherine), Nancy Palk (Teresa), and Randy Hughson (Frank)     Photo: Michael Cooper
Mary (played here marvelously by Martha Burns) is a London doctor who is the smartest and most successful among the three siblings. Burns’ short red hair and devastated expression paints the most shattered and sympathetic character in the play. She has unresolved issues with her mother, Vi (Corrine Koslo), who manifests herself to Mary – and only to Mary. Mary carries on a relationship with a married doctor, Mike (Peter Cockett), who carries on the relationship but doesn’t want to leave his wife (which is quite often the case, isn’t it?).

Teresa (Nancy Palk) runs a health-food business (or "dietary supplement business", as she insists on calling it) with her husband Frank (Randy Hughson). She took care of her mother until she passed away, and is rather contented with her life and her business, although she does complain about having been the one left behind to take care of her ailing mother. Her husband is tired of his life selling something he doesn’t believe in, and when he confesses that he wants to have a pub, Teresa is aghast. But then again, that could have been the gin, which causes Teresa to let everything come out in a hilarious romp.

Catherine (Kristen Thomson), the youngest, is the whiney, flirtatious one in the family. Her mother has just died, yet she comes bounding into the bedroom with shopping bags in hand and a new pair of leopard-skin platform shoes, which she tries on and asks if they are appropriate for the funeral. She complains of being dumped and not being understood by men (she’s had 78 of them), and describes herself as very "giving": she likes to give and share - although what she likes to give and share is marijuana (and probably sex too) which she offers gratuitously.

The sisters have a somewhat hazy memory of their mother. One remembers being left at the beach by mom, while another claims that that specific events happened to her, not to the other. It is suggested in the play that this "fluid" memory is similar to a condition in water. Water retains certain types of chemicals even after efforts to filter them out. And so, the sisters have some sort of contempt or misunderstanding of their mother because of this.

Stephenson’s script is wonderfully crafted and poignant. It successfully indulges the audience in its sometimes over-the-top silliness, and our defenses are easily let down with such boisterously witty and humorous one-liners and scenes, such as when the sisters try on their mother’s clothing and parade around in them at the end of Act One. Its poignancy lies in the bittersweet dialogue and an eleventh-hour revelation about the past, although that seems a bit contrived.

Maxwell’s production is riotous and heart-wrenching, and the first-rate cast hits all the right notes with this sharp and tremendously funny black comedy.


By Shelagh Stephenson. Directed by Jackie Maxwell. Sets and costumes by Sue LePage; lighting by Bonnie Beecher. Presented by David & Ed Mirvish. At the Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto.

WITH: Martha Burns (Mary), Peter Cockett (Mike), Randy Hughson (Frank), Corrine Koslo (Vi), Nancy Palk (Teresa), and Kristen Thomson (Catherine).

February 17 – April 8, 2000 at The Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge Street. Call (416) 872-5555.

Enigma Variations

The moment Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s Enigma Variations loses its credibility as a drama is in the first few moments after the curtain rises to reveal Donald Sutherland sitting in a nicely-furnished living room looking out the window with a pair of binoculars. He gets up and goes into another room, and gunshots are heard. John Rubinstein runs up onto the porch and exclaims to Sutherland there’s a madman trying to shoot him. Sutherland, carrying a gun with him back into the room, apologizes to him for being a lousy shot.

Enigma Variations, in a newly adapted version by Roeg Sutherland that recently premiered at The Royal Alexandra Theatre, is self-deprecating. It doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, even if the audience is expected to go along with the predictable and contrived plot, and it possesses a caustic wit. The script falters with some bad lines, perhaps too literal a translation from the original French. However, despite that and the play’s sarcastic tone, it does succeed in grabbing and holding the attention of the audience during the course of 90 minutes. Yet I still had trouble digesting Enigma and more often I was rolling my eyes at such one-liners as "Of course I don’t get bored: I’m with me" and taking it in with a grain of salt. I don’t think it was meant to be a comedy, and still have trouble in finding some credibility in Schmitts’ play even so.

Sutherland plays Abel Znorko, a reclusive Nobel Prize-winning novelist who lives alone on a remote Norwegian Island. He has just published a passionate and personal book of letters that is a correspondence between two lovers – himself and a woman with the initials "HM". Rubinstein (Tony-winner for Broadway’s Children Of A Lesser God), a small-town journalist by the name of Erik Larsen, is granted a rare interview by the egotistical author. He questions Znorko about the book, asking whether one of the two lovers is Znorko, who becomes easily angered and is about to throw Larsen out when he relents and decides to give him the scoop. Eventually, it is discovered that the letters are indeed a correspondence between him and a lover. It also turns out that they both knew the same woman – but they knew her quite differently.

The title Enigma Variations is actually the name of a composition by Sir Edward Elgar. The piece has 14 different variations on a theme – a hidden melody that Elgar refused to reveal and took with him to his deathbed. The two characters knew the same woman quite differently, and Schmitt suggests in the play that the woman, "HM", was an enigma that neither of them ever really figured out, or ever really knew.

From this, Schmitt tantalizes the audience as he delves deeper into the mystery with twists and turns that lead to four or five major revelations. But it feels all too contrived, and it panders to our emotions. One of the revelations is used to create the sentimentality needed in the egomaniacal character of Znorko, although it feels substantially false and a smart attempt on Schmitt’s part to use the conventional device of the revelation as a way to further character development and generate some sort of pathos. Otherwise, the specious plot feels rather trite, or hackneyed, if you will.

As Znorko, Sutherland creates a conceited, sarcastic, and also a likeable character. But his acting is less than exceptional, and is rather insipid. His big dramatic moments in Enigma are lacking and actually disappointing. John Rubinstein, on the other hand, is an exceptional stage actor. He makes Erik Larsen a meek and wounded man who goes to Znorko to learn and reveal (although I can’t say exactly what, or else it would be saying too much).

Anthony Page’s production is simple and elegant, although Enigma is plagued with a pandering and seemingly-contrived script.


By Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Translated by Roeg Sutherland. Directed by Anthony Page. Scenic design by Ming Cho Lee; costumes by Candice Cain; lighting by Robert Wierzel. Presented by Francine Racette, Duncan Weldon, Ira Pittelman, Emanuel Azenberg, David & Ed Mirvish and The Mark Taper Forum/Gordon Davidson. At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, Toronto.

WITH: Donald Sutherland (Abel Znorko) and John Rubinstein (Erik Larsen).

February 17 – April 1, 2000 at The Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West. Call (416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.

-Antonio Tan
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