Natalia Zvereva and Dianne Wiest in Memory House
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Natalia Zvereva and Dianne Wiest in Memory House
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Maggie doesn't really know how to bake a blueberry pie but, with a copy of The Joy of Cooking in front of her, she gives it the old college try. In Memory House by Kathleen Tolan, the pie functions as both an activity to be accomplished within the 80-minute span of the performance (you can actually smell it baking as the play nears its completion) and an extended metaphor for parenting.

Unable to have a child by her now divorced husband, Maggie (played by two-time Academy Award winner Dianne Wiest) adopted a child from a Russian orphanage. Katia (Natalia Zvereva) is now a teenager and, as she faces the prospect of finishing her college entrance exam essays, she finds herself questioning everything about her life, including her relationship to her mother.

The imperfect but quietly resonant play gets off to a rather slow start. Mother and daughter trade sarcastic remarks as Katia sits sullenly on the couch while Maggie begins to make the pie. It's unclear whether they always talk in this manner, avoiding substantive issues while taking a rather patronizing tone toward each other. Katia eventually reveals that she's stumped by the essay in which she's required to explain what is in her "memory house" -- i.e., the repository for a person's earliest recollections. She can't recall anything about her life back in Russia and is suddenly seized with a desire to find out more about her birth mother.

The play brings up some of the thornier issues surrounding transnational adoption. The relative affluence and politically aggressive tactics of the U.S. have created an uneven social situation that allows for a kind of exploitation, even if the those involved in an adoption are well-intentioned. Maggie describes the circumstances which led to Katia's adoption but the young woman pointedly states that these are Maggie's stories, not her own. She vaguely remembers Maggie and a strange man reading to her in Russian; shortly after Katia's arrival in the U.S., Maggie had a Russian acquaintance read aloud excerpts from Anna Karenina. "I thought if I didn't know the particulars of your heritage, maybe Tolstoy would do," she says.

Wiest is delightful, presenting an understated portrait of a woman who has lost much of the luster that used to be a part of her life. A former dancer, she now works at an office job, doesn't go out much, and sometimes weeps to herself at home. "I can't believe I'm baking a pie," says Maggie. "I used to be an interesting person." However, she's not so far gone that she can't take an interest in her daughter's life; on the contrary, it's one of the few things that seem to keep her going, and Katia remarks more than once that Maggie will be at a loss for what to do after she's gone. In her interactions with her daughter, Wiest's Maggie puts on an air of nonchalance. She has a high-pitched, vaguely insincere manner of speaking that breaks when Katia pushes her mother's buttons in just the right way; at those moments, Wiest's voice drops an octave and her delivery becomes clipped and forceful.

Zvereva hits her marks as Katia but doesn't seem to have created as vibrant an internal life for her character as Wiest has created for hers. The audience should feel more emotionally engaged in Katia's journey but she tends to come across as a generic, angst-ridden teenager, rather than one who has a very legitimate reason for questioning who she is and who she wants to become.

Loy Arcenas's cluttered set is the epitome of kitchen sink naturalism -- with the exception of the walls, which are suggested by painted scrims. They look solid when the light hits them but, prior to the show, you can see through them to the back walls of the Playwrights Horizons stage. Jane Cox's lighting is functionally unobtrusive, and Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costumes are appropriate. Director David Esbjornson has done a nice job of keeping what could potentially be a static two-hander lively and entertaining.

Portions of the play bring to mind Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, which also explored a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship, but there's no big bang at the end here. There are few moments of overt conflict in Memory House, and the resolution that the characters reach is predictable yet somehow fitting.