Promenade Playhouse’s “The Memory of Water” takes sibling rivalry
to dark comedic heights

Three sisters reunited by their mother’s death clash with comedic effect in “The Memory of Water,” opening Friday in Santa Monica

Three sisters reunited by their mother’s death clash with comedic effect in “The Memory of Water,” opening Friday in Santa Monica

By Michael Aushenker

Most people can relate to bickering with family members. Maybe even more after the holidays.

“The Memory of Water,” opening Friday at the Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica, takes sibling rivalry to absurd lengths.

Winner of the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy, British playwright Shelagh Stephenson’s darkly humorous play centers on three sisters — paranoid Mary, uptight Teresa and bratty Catherine — who have returned to their north England home for the funeral of their mother, who has died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. This forced reunion activates an intense rivalry with “sibling jealousies, witty bickering, and doped-up soul searching” rising to the surface, according to the playbill.

Shortly after its initial 1996 staging at Hampstead Theatre in the central London borough of Camden, “Memory” proved a hit in London’s West End. The piece also inspired Lewis Gilbert’s 2002 movie, adapted by Stephenson, featuring Julie Walters and Joanne Whalley.

The Santa Monica production, directed by Vincent Lappas, stars Alexa Asjes, Jasmin De Main, Danette Garrelts, Frank Krueger and Bette Smith.

“It’s about family and sisters and relationships and family secrets. It’s about grief and closure. The sisters are estranged so their memories of childhood are different. It’s very emotional,” said Garrelts, who is not only one of the play’s actors but also the production’s producer and managing director of Promenade Playhouse.

Like the story in “Memory of Water,” the show’s genesis at Promenade Playhouse has been twisty.

“Memory” was about to be staged over the summer but the original director had to back out because of medical reasons. Lappas came aboard but complications arose getting the rights to Stephenson’s play, since a North Hollywood company intended to stage it in September. A January window was agreed upon for the Santa Monica troupe, only for the Promenade Players to discover that the North Hollywood production had been delayed until March 2015 and now indefinitely.

“Jasmin De Main brought the play to me about three years ago. Last year, we did another reading of it, and Jasmin kept pushing for it,” Garrelts said.

The 53-seat theater has for 14 years served as a vessel for productions by various companies, including Promenade Theater Company; Creative Arts Company, which for two years has delivered weekend children’s shows; and fiscal sponsor Theater by the Blind, which in November staged Caitlin Hernandez’s drama “Losing It.”

“It’s like a hidden gem,” Garrelts said of the theater, tucked inside an office building across from Anthropologie on Third Street Promenade.

The Promenade Theater Company launched in 2009 with “All in the Timing,” directed by artistic director Natalia Lazarus. “The Laramie Project,” “In Bed with Ten” (about playwright Tennessee Williams), “The Dining Room,” and “Plays in the Park” followed.

With “Memory,” the Promenade Players have aligned one of their productions for the first time with a charity: Alzheimer’s Association. Tickets can be purchased online for $10 using the coupon code CARE15, directing the proceeds to the cause.

Since the playhouse is on a rotation with other companies, Garrelts said Promenade Players’ follow-up production won’t appear until autumn 2015, but it will be a doozy. The original work, currently being written, focuses on a tragic figure from a legendary California rock group.

Meanwhile, Garrelts believes her company’s hard-earned right to stage “Memory of Water” should prove entertaining to area theatergoers.

“It’s brilliantly written. There are a lot of funny moments in it. That’s one of Vincent’s specialties: finding the comedy in the content,” she said.

“The Memory of Water” opens at 8 p.m. Friday at Promenade Playhouse, 1404 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. Stagings continue at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 14. Tickets are $20. Call (310) 960-7785 or visit plays