BWW Reviews: MEMORY HOUSE - Astounding, Emotionally Powerful Acting Saves Shaky Script

BWW Reviews: MEMORY HOUSE - Astounding, Emotionally Powerful Acting Saves Shaky ScriptSpring is fast upon us and high school seniors will soon be getting their acceptance letters for universities in the mail. They have put in hours of hard work in their classes, extracurricular activities, doing community service, and writing those dreaded and trite essays for college admissions boards to review. Hopefully.

Such is the major conceit behind Kathleen Tolan' script for MEMORY HOUSE, having its Regional Premiere at Main Street Theater. The plot centers on Katia as she struggles to complete an essay for her top pick university's admissions packet. Her mother, Maggie, comes home and encourages her to complete the essay. With a bag of groceries in hand, she sets out to bake a pie from scratch. Maggie seems to resist fully helping her daughter. She knows if Katia goes off to college, then she'll be alone in her tiny New York apartment. Katia is stressed because the essay asks her to construct a memory house that explains her identity. As an adopted child from Russia, she feels that her identity is relatively unknown to her because she lacks the ability to concisely explain her own roots.

Kathleen Tolan's text at first appears to be a treatise on the pros and cons of international adoption. However, Katia displays a lot of rebellious teenage angst towards the United States government in reaction to the War on Terror in the Middle East. Having been a high school senior dismayed by the decisions of President Bush and his search for weapons of mass destruction, I related to Katia's feelings of animosity and contempt. For me, these feelings were not born out of an international adoption, which created the first crack in the altogether fractured writing. In addition to these angry cries of outrage against America as global bully, Kathleen Tolan attempts to tackle the pressure that divorce places on American society and American families. There is a battle between the parents and their unique strengths in the play, despite the father being voiceless and not physically appearing in the show. The plays also broaches on the hardships of being a working mother and a workingwoman in general. It skims over the surface of the confusing quest for identity that modern teenagers find themselves in. Kathleen Tolan adeptly finds many issues to address, but she only touches on each one gingerly and lightly. Kathleen Tolan never fully satisfies my craving for a juicy morsel that I can vehemently agree with or be diametrically opposed to.

Despite the multifaceted writing that feels philosophically incomplete, Claire Hart-Palumbo directs the play with emotional vigor and heart-rending strength. Maggie and Katia desperately battle one another. Their dialogue is cruel and harsh, hitting the audience with the weight and gravity with which they hit each other. Many members of the audience shed tears as the women tear each other apart with their vindictive diatribes. Katia and Maggie effectively clear the room of any elephants that their journey through life may have accumulated. Claire Hart-Palumbo's direction makes this purging of resentment and pent up frustrations tangible, gritty, raw, and realistic. The audience is presented with a family who must clear the air before the essay that will get Katia accepted to college can be completed. Lurking behind the anger and aggression is the constant fear that if the accumulated dirty laundry is not aired now, then it never will be.

Joanna Hubbard is spectacular as Katia. The audience sees Katia as a fully realized and ultimately believable teenager. There is no crack in the flawless characterization. Joanna Hubbard's Katia is angst ridden, emotionally conflicted, and utterly lost in her own anxiety about the transition to college life and adulthood. As a realistic teenager, she is wrestling with her adopted parents' decision to pull her out of Russia and bring her stateside. She readily admits that had she stayed in Russia she would most likely be a prostitute on some street corner in Moscow, but, as she feels no connection to the United States or Russia, she cannot be certain which outcome for her life is the better one.

As Maggie, Rebecca Udden leaves the audience both frenzied and breathless. I found myself positively enraged that she was not more supportive of Katia's writing of the essay. Yes, she asks about it, but then she moves on to bake a pie from scratch. It seems that if she ignores the essay and does not help, then she feels that she cannot be held accountable if Katia is not accepted. In other words, Rebecca Udden's Maggie appears to be completely afraid of being alone and is willing to not offer assistance, passively sabotaging Katia and possibly keeping her home for another year. On the other hand, the audience sees a mother that deeply loves her daughter and yearns to give her the world on a silver platter. She has striven to ensure that Katia has had the best opportunities afforded to her. She has provided a safe environment for Katia to grow and mature. She even hired a repair man who immigrated from Russia to read Anna Karenina to her in Russian when she was first adopted to make her fell more at home and welcomed.

Set Design by Ryan McGettigan is simply immaculate. He fills the entire acting space with the accruements that convey small, working class New York apartment. He even utilizes three different looks for the flooring (ceramic tile entrance, wooden floored living room, Formica tile kitchen) to expertly indicate the beginnings and ends of spaces. Additionally, Ryan McGettigan has constructed a kitchen that appears to be mostly working, allowing Rebecca Udden as Maggie to actually bake a pie in real time in front of the audience. His sink has running water, his stove at least gives the illusion of heating the pie filling, and the oven appears to bake the pie. (I did not smell blueberry pie filling being rendered or the pie actually baking, so my guess is that the stovetop and oven do not actually work.)

Eric L. Marsh's Lighting Design utilizes hanging lights that one would see in a home or apartment to wonderful effect. When standing near enough to them, we actually see the differences in lighting brighten the faces of the actresses. Above the hanging lights, he uses pleasant amber washes to create a realistic light for the apartment.

Shawn W. St. John's sound design is immaculate. My favorite effect is at the top of show. Music performed by Eminiem starts in the speakers that surrounds the audience during the blackout and fades to the speakers in the entertainment center as the lights fade up on the show. Furthermore, each ring of a phone sound as if it comes from the phones themselves, which is a nice touch.

Rodney Walsworth Property Design accurately places the play in 2005 (the year the play debuted) as far as technological choices are concerned. Rebecca Udden's character walks in with a reusable grocery bag that seems a bit more modern than 2005. But the trend began in 1989 and gained a lot of momentum in 2005, so it is not implausible. Likewise, his collection of items for Katia's box is wonderfully chosen and pristinely matches the dialogue about each item.

Main Street Theater's production of MEMORY HOUSE is better acted and better produced than it is written. Kathleen Tolan with the help of Claire Hart-Palumbo's direction creates believable characters that the audience can follow, even if the script leaves the audience uncertain about what Kathleen Tolan's intent with the play is. Audiences should be snapping up tickets just to see the dynamic and emotionally wrought performances of Joanna Hubbard and Rebecca Udden.

MEMORY HOUSE runs at Main Street Theater's Rice Village location through February 10, 2013. For more information and tickets please visit http://mainstreettheater.com/ or call (713) 524 - 6706.

All photos by Kaitlyn Walker. Courtesy of Main Street Theater.

BWW Reviews: MEMORY HOUSE - Astounding, Emotionally Powerful Acting Saves Shaky Script

BWW Reviews: MEMORY HOUSE - Astounding, Emotionally Powerful Acting Saves Shaky Script
Pictured are Maggie (ReBecca Greene Udden) and her daughter Katia (Joanna Hubbard).

BWW Reviews: MEMORY HOUSE - Astounding, Emotionally Powerful Acting Saves Shaky Script
Pictured are Maggie (ReBecca Greene Udden) and her daughter Katia (Joanna Hubbard).

BWW Reviews: MEMORY HOUSE - Astounding, Emotionally Powerful Acting Saves Shaky Script
Pictured are Maggie (ReBecca Greene Udden) and her daughter Katia (Joanna Hubbard).

BWW Reviews: MEMORY HOUSE - Astounding, Emotionally Powerful Acting Saves Shaky Script
Pictured are Maggie (ReBecca Greene Udden) and her daughter Katia (Joanna Hubbard).

BWW Reviews: MEMORY HOUSE - Astounding, Emotionally Powerful Acting Saves Shaky Script

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