Theater : Angst, attitude, and pie at The Vineyard Playhouse
It is comedic, moving, and insightful. In Kathleen Tolan's two-character play "Memory House," now playing at the Vineyard Playhouse, the mother, Maggie, and her daughter, Katia (Natalia Payne), spend New Year's Eve bickering over meeting the deadline for Katia's college essay. Katia waits until the very last few hours until the postmark deadline to finish her college application essay about her collection of childhood memories; her memory house. She objects to her mother's suggestions to complete it by saying all she can remember "is a house with a rotten porch."
But what the play is really about is the complexities of adoption and of living in the world today for a divorced mother and her adopted teenager.
The scatterbrained mother, brilliantly played by film star Kathy Baker ("13 Going on 30", "Cold Mountain," "Edward Scissorhands," and many television roles), putters around her kitchen, protecting herself against Katia's verbal assaults with measurements and mixing bowls and the recipe for a blueberry pie.
Adopted from a Russian orphanage, Katia takes her resentment out on her mother, shouting insults: "When you read me that book, and read a mushed up Russian word, I thought you were retarded;" and "You sometimes look like a dog with a mild heart attack, clinging to the couch, drooling on the pillows" to take her anger out against the United States, whose politics she objects to.
Ms. Baker captures both her character's warmth and stoic mind-set as she is targeted by Katia's immaturities. She maintains the appearance of being jaunty while her pie bakes in the oven. But Maggie covers feelings of sadness and loss, the frustration toward her former husband, and her high hopes of success for her teenage daughter.
The play has a vivid and lively script and, because of the outrageously far-fetched comments between the mother and daughter, it inspires laughter. All the while, it follows the steps of baking a blueberry pie in the setting of a complicated Manhattan family household.
In response to her daughter's question for a specific memory from her childhood, of which Katia insists she has no memory, her mother recalls her daughter being afraid of the snap, crackle and pop noise Rice Krispies make, and explains how she taped earplugs to the box for her to use every morning. She also finds a box of memories she saved for her daughter: a video of her as a little girl, singing in the orphanage, a Teddy bear, a child's dress, and a cassette of an interview with someone from the orphanage.
As the night progresses, Katia exerts enough rage to express what's actually boiling within; being an adopted child and "ripped from a bleeding country." She blames her lack of childhood memories on her parents' decision to adopt, because they couldn't have their own birth child.
Although Maggie's attempts at encouragement backfire, she never gives up on her daughter. Her determination to love and help Katia clearly show in Ms. Baker's performance.
For about an hour, Katia fumes and balks, expressing teenage animosity to everything around her. Musical excerpts from Wu Tang Clan is the icing on the cake; the finishing touch on the environment of the meticulously cluttered stage set from the mess of a teenager. Ms. Payne fulfills her character with utter and convincing success, with her sluggish postures on the living room couch where she sprawls during most of the play.
Both actors, Ms. Payne and Ms. Baker, are superb and absolutely believable. At one point, Ms. Baker's face is about to shatter if another one of Katia's raging fits continues. Ms. Payne speaks with stubborn, tight-mouthed, monosyllabic answers, as well as in her vulgar and outrageous outbursts. Ms. Baker sets the mood with her light and airy demeanor during the struggles of a mother-daughter relationship.
Ms. Tolan's script covers a mixture of foreign adoption, divorce, college transition, teenage anxiety, and more. The only flaw is that the script fails to give enough reason for the extremity of Katia's angst. But that does not affect the performances, which will not disappoint. The acting is phenomenal.
If you're easily offended, disregard the few vulgar outbursts during some of the raging arguments between mother and daughter. It is a captivating play, and one to savor. Although Katia may not be someone you might want to entertain in your home - at least not until her college application is mailed - she is without a doubt someone you will enjoy watching onstage.
"Memory House" 8 pm, Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. By Kathleen Tolan; directed by Claudia Weill. Times, prices vary. Through Sept. 5. 508-696-6300; vineyardplayhouse.org.
Caitlyn Clark is an intern at The Times.