LOWELL — What is it about baking a pie that strikes such a visceral chord? Beyond the inviting aroma, the feeling of home, and the rewarding taste, there’s an exactness to the art that playwright Kathleen Tolan transforms into a powerful metaphor in “Memory House,” now getting a crisp production at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
Set on New Year’s Eve in the New York apartment of Maggie (an affecting Susan Pellegrino) and her teenage daughter Katia (the remarkably expressive Rebecca Blumhagen), this satisfying sliver of a play, just 80 minutes long, captures the few hours left before Katia’s college application essay is due. While Katia struggles to complete it, the recently divorced Maggie decides to make a blueberry pie, a domestic pursuit that’s new to her.
As Katia petulantly complains about writing, pontificates about politics, and enumerates her mother’s flaws, Maggie measures out the handful of ingredients with care, follows the instructions with humor and delight, and gently encourages Katia to finish. When her daughter mocks Maggie’s decision to spend the night at home making pastry, Maggie replies that “baking things acts as an anchor to keep the brain strands in place.” Without ever rubbing our noses in it, Tolan lets us know that Maggie’s ex-husband, recently made chair of a college department, is now involved with a younger woman, while Maggie, a former dancer with her own company, works in an office. Maggie expresses no bitterness, just a sense of being left adrift. Baking serves as an effort to ground herself as well as her daughter.
Maggie’s baking exercise — and she truly is baking over the course of the play — is also a helpful distraction from the task of nagging her daughter about meeting the looming deadline. The essay is required to be a memoir, and Katia, who was adopted from Russia, cannot reconcile her resentment at having been “stolen” from her home country with her gratitude for the opportunities she’s been given by her adoptive parents. For Maggie, navigating Katia’s emotional roller coaster requires humor, persistence, and a thick skin as well as a delicate sense of timing.
Director Melia Bensussen understands the simple rhythm of this duet, and moves the characters gracefully through this dance of negotiation and connection. Within the confines of the modest apartment, Maggie shifts from the kitchen area to the living room, balancing her own needs with those of her teenager, moving in and backing off sensitively, depending on Katia’s responses. As Katia’s tone ranges from churlish to childish, Maggie’s responses reflect the complexity of parenting an adolescent, a role that comes without the exact instructions of a recipe, but requires careful preparation.
Full disclosure: I am the mother of a high school senior currently in the midst of wrestling with her college application essay, and believe me, I feel Maggie’s pain. But Tolan’s writing adroitly connects audience not simply with this specific situation, but with the universally recognizable moment when life is about to change. Maggie implores Katia to “just do the thing,” which is also a plea to herself to pick up her own life and move on.
When Katia reads her essay at play’s end, she pulls together an extraordinary collection of memories, which feel like a foundation for a new beginning rather than a summary of what’s past. The impact is as satisfying as sampling a piece of a freshly baked pie.