The event: A one-time staged reading of Kathleen Tolan’s “Memory House” Tuesday at the 2nd Space Theatre. It’s a benefit performance for Jeff and Leslie Martin’s efforts to adopt Samantha, an orphan from Ukraine. Amelia Ryan, well known in the local theater community, is teaming up in the two-person production with her daughter, Alice, a trained actor now pursuing a career in New York as a traditional Irish singer. It will be the first time mother and daughter act together as adults.
My state of mind: Ever have one of those days when you wake up with grand plans and then hit a wall at about 4 pm? I want to go to the reading because 1) I have great respect for Amelia Ryan as an actor; 2) I’ve never seen the play; and 3) it’s for a good cause. But at about 7 pm, just a few minutes before I have to leave the house to make the performance in time, I’m sprawled on my couch counting the reasons I’m too tired to go.
Extra push: But I know a sure-fire way to motivate myself. All I have to say is: If I miss this, I’ll never get to experience it again. Perhaps that’s one reason I love live performance so much: It’s finite. It happens and then it’s gone. I can’t demand it on Netflix. Movies, books and TV are there for me to consume on my schedule. But a one-time visit from a celebrated pianist, say, or a limited-run theatrical show -- those have to be experienced now or lost forever. And the next episode of “Call the Midwife” can wait.
The scene: The audience is a merry and cordial band of folks gathered together for a good cause. Joshua Taylor, representing the Motley Fools, which is sponsoring the performance, welcomes the crowd with some information on upcoming benefit performances for the Ukraine orphan fund. Amelia Ryan introduces the show. (The two-person play is a family affair, with her son, Mark, reading the stage directions).
The play: On New Year’s Eve, a mother (played by Amelia) makes a blueberry pie while her daughter (Alice) tries to finish up an essay for college application that has to be postmarked by midnight. As the evening unfolds in real time, we learn about issues relating to the daughter’s adoption from a Russian orphanage. Mother and daughter bicker, reminisce and occasionally land heavy psychic blows on each other. It’s intense.
The performance: The acting is strong, fierce and wrapped up in emotion, even in the staged-reading format. Both Ryans get to bare their characters’ respective souls. The play has much to say about the U.S. standing in the world, with the concept of foreign adoptions as “wartime loot” a fascinating (and controversial) theme. On a deeper level, the script explores the idea of childhood memory: How much are those memories shaped and molded throughout our lives to conform to societal expectations? And, in perhaps the most interesting theme to me of all: What right does a university, say, have to dredge up those memories for a bureaucratic exercise? Expanding on that, we often as social animals query each other extensively about our pasts. When does that become intrusive?
The impact: Watching a mother and daughter play a mother and daughter is part of this experience, of course. Watching them do it for the first time ratchets up the emotional level even more. Is it possible to watch the Ryans perform the climactic scene, which ends in a desperate and long-held hug, and not experience a few tears? Sure, if you’re Mr. Spock, or maybe just had Botox. But for me, it’s a cathartic moment made even more real by the real bonds on stage.
The personal connection: The play’s focus on memory makes me think of my visit to the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul. Some people keep their memories in a “House,” others in museum: some in a book, others, perhaps, in a play? One thing’s for sure: I don’t think Amelia or Alice Ryan will never forget this night.
The benefit: Then there’s the similarity between the play’s exploration of a Russian orphan and the real life effort to find a home in the U.S. for an orphan from Ukraine. That connection cements the evening’s emotional bond.
The takeaway: I could have missed this show, sure. Life would have gone on. But if I had, I would have missed something special. Sometimes you have to make the extra effort. I’m glad I got off the couch.
Special thanks to Kyle Lowe for providing the photos.