There’s precious little darkness in what the Washington Stage Guild’s press releases are calling “Shelagh Stephenson’s dark comedy, The Memory of Water.” Unless, that is, you find darkness in death, depression, drunkenness, marital infidelity, and sororicidal urges.

The three grown sisters at the center of Stephenson’s briskly uproarious comedy certainly don’t. Their mother has just died, their romances are coming apart, and they’re so contentious when they get together that they can’t even agree on the manner in which they disagree (“We don’t argue—we bicker”). But they’re putting on a brave face for one another as they prepare for a midwinter Yorkshire funeral that’s certain to be snowed out and leave them with a casket in the bedroom to go with all their other problems.

Teresa (Laura Giannarelli), the eldest—a vegetarian, health-additive faddist who’s into all things organic—is the undisputed family martyr and control freak. She married Frank (Hugh Nees) because he lied prettily in his classified ad, but stayed home with their Alzheimer’s-addled mum when her sisters left to pursue life. She’s not miserable, exactly, but she’s feeling that life hasn’t altogether treated her well.

Wayward, irresponsible Catherine (Tricia McCauley) is her diametric opposite—the manic, insecure (despite her sisters’ opinion that she has “an ego the size of Asia Minor”), self-medicating baby of the trio, who can say with a perfectly straight face, “I haven’t got any friends; I mean I have, but I don’t like them.”

Middle sis Mary (Jewel Orem)—the golden child who went off to become a doctor, and who is having an affair with a married colleague named Mike (Morgan Duncan)—seems comparatively normal. She’s definitely a feet-planted-firmly type. But she’s the one being haunted by their recently deceased mother (Paris Obligin), who pops into her thoughts at inopportune moments, brightly kibitzing about the good life Mary so takes for granted and generally being as maddening as ever.

Stephenson’s story isn’t much—a family get-together at which no one can agree on anything, from childhood memories to whether the casket should be open or closed—but her dialogue and situations are priceless. Each daughter is coping with death in her own way, and because these are not siblings who know how to give one another room to grieve, they’re coping with death in one another’s ways as well. Mary, for instance, wants nothing more than to catch a little shut-eye, but Teresa has decided that their mother’s garish clothing must be sorted immediately so the good stuff can be donated to the poor in Zimbabwe; in a matter of seconds, the stage looks like a department store changing room on the day after Christmas, with hatboxes and shoes strewn everywhere, the sisters trying on gowns they’d never look at in saner moments, and everyone—in the entirely apt phrasing of Teresa’s husband—”hoppin’ ’round the dance floor like a bag of ferrets.”

The author definitely has a way with words, and she’s well-served by director Steven Carpenter, who can not only wrest chuckles from punch lines too complicated to set up in print (“It’s not my fault if Albanians haven’t got bananas”) but also contrives somehow to make riotous even the following exchange: “So, how are you?” “Good.”

I swear. Major laugh.

The director is getting plenty of help from a cast of able comedians, starting with the ones playing the three sisters, whose timing is delicious and whose speech patterns suggest familial closeness even when their accents drift into neighboring English counties. As the hapless men in their lives, Duncan and Nees are…well, hapless, but each quite funny in his own right. And if Obligin can’t make the deceased terribly entertaining, she’s operating at something of a disadvantage, being saddled with having to deliver the evening’s message.

For all the humor in The Memory of Water—the title refers to a fluid’s ability to retain certain properties when diluted—Stephenson’s central notion is strictly sentimental: that resist as they might, kids tend to grow up to be just like their parents, and that even when the parents are seriously flawed, that’s not altogether a bad thing. In the evening’s last 20 minutes, the author sugars the arguments a bit more than she really needs to, but that’s a small price to pay for the hilarity that goes before.

“Disaster,” howls Elektra at the outset of Orestes, “pain, plague, misery!” Shortly thereafter, if I heard her right, she mentioned a “dead-baby stew.”

The House of Atreus is not a particularly joy-filled place as our story begins in this second play of the Scena Theatre’s Euripidean Trilogy. Six days have passed since the end of Part 1, in which Elektra talked her brother into killing their mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge the murder of their father, Agamemnon. Now Orestes is lying semicomatose, tormented by horror at what he’s done, and Elektra is keening at the gods, knowing that the enraged populace will soon show up to stone them to death.

When Orestes awakes, he keens for a while, too, then takes more active measures, first trying unsuccessfully to get help from their warrior uncle, Menelaos, then pleading their case to the city fathers with assistance from his buddy Pylades. There’s lots more: plotting, kidnapping, murder, a suicide pact, not to mention a last-minute jolt from the gods that ends the evening on an oddly cheerful note. But don’t worry—there’s more carnage coming in Part 3, Iphigeneia in Tauris, which will join Orestes in Scena’s rep next week.

Robert McNamara, who staged Elektra (the trilogy’s first section) as an excruciatingly arch harangue with video effects, is doing much more nuanced and intriguing work in Orestes. The director is best known locally for his lucid interpretations of 20th-century absurdist comedies, so it’s no real surprise that he views Euripides through a contemporary lens. Here, he’s using a translation by Kenneth McLeish that is nothing if not vernacular—”Don’t fuss at the gods” is a pretty typical line—and outfitting everyone in modern dress (trench coats for the Furies, high heels for Helen of Troy, pigtails for young Iphigeneia).

He also encourages a few of his performers to wax ironic as their characters bridle at being punished for avenging hideous wrongs. Particularly adept at blending modern rebellion with ancient grief is the sneering Orestes assayed by Christopher Henley, who barks at the mob, convulses every time he tries to utter the word “mother,” bonds with his best buddy (a winning David Lamont Wilson), and cajoles his relatives as if he were a prowling teenage delinquent. When the general din gets to him—I forget whether he’s upset with his sister’s caterwauling or the shrieking of the Furies—his sarcastic “I’m condemned to death….You’re killing me twice! Be quiet!” might as well have been penned by Quentin Tarantino.

These modernist touches don’t so much mesh with the dissonant shrilling and tragic gestures employed by other characters as provide relief from them. But the mix does make the evening’s last-minute, deus-ex-platform arrival of Apollo seem properly absurd. The gods are decidedly capricious in the plays of Euripides, and McNamara makes the impact of their decrees on the poor humans being battered around seem an awful lot like the impact of a capricious universe on the existential heroes in Beckett and Ionesco. His staging of Elektra last year had me dreading the rest of the trilogy, but I’m now looking forward to the troupe’s upcoming trek to Tauris, where we’ll get to see what happens to Agamemnon’s spunky daughter Iphigeneia. CP

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