Kevin O'Rourke and Bella Merlin, who portray Moss and Avis in Lee Blessing's "A Body of Water," stand on a wooden deck in front of a well-appointed house. O'Rourke is in a green robe and slippers, holding a cup of coffee, and gesturing with one hand, while Merlin, in a blue floral robe and sandals, also holds a coffee cup. They appear contemplative and somewhat confused, fitting the theme of the play. The background shows part of the house with a trellis and outdoor seating area.
Kevin O'Rourke as Moss and Bella Merlin as Avis in Lee Blessing's A Body of Water. The couple, navigate the complexities of identity and a mysterious mutual memory loss in the outdoor Roman Garden Theatre at Shakespeare & Company; photo by Ken Yotsukura.

Terrifying, vexing, “A Body of Water” beckons

Memory and Mystery: A Riveting Start to Shakespeare & Company's 2024 Season with A Body of Water

Were I to give away the ending to Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water, even publish the final five pages here, no spoiler alert would be required. You’d still have to see the first 90 minutes to understand why this staging is such a riveting piece of theatre. A psychological dramatic thriller launching Shakespeare & Company’s 2024 season, the work taps into a well-mined literary vein of memory loss, yet manages to illuminate unique and intriguing facets in a surprising collection of new gems.

I barely suppressed a grin, eavesdropping on conversations among the crowd at Sunday’s performance making their way into the lobby after giving the performance a standing ovation. It’s a compliment both to the playwright and the production when people can rise to their feet, cheering, and moments later ask each other, “So, what the fuck just happened there, anyway?”

Actual overheard quote.


A Body of Water, by Lee Blessing

June 21 — July 21
3:30 pm and 7 pm

Roman Garden Theatre
Shakespeare & Company
70 Kemble Street
Lenox, Mass.

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Director James Warwick does a fine job of ensuring that the mindfuckery suffered by Blessing’s characters bleeds over into the collective mind of the audience. A complex work of theatre, nuanced and penetrating — like relationships, like memory, like life — probably should leave audiences with a little wiggle room in their certainty, even to the point of discomfort.

But I’m forgetting myself — let’s back it up. The tale begins simply enough.

A middle-aged man and woman (Kevin O’Rourke and Bella Merlin) open the action, each clad in tony bathrobes and sipping at cups of coffee in what we assume to be the sunroom or breakfast nook of a well-appointed vacation residence. Casual morning banter quickly gives way to parallel confessions that neither knows who the other is or who they, themselves, are.

The pair, who may or may not be husband and wife, try on various possible scenarios, some mundane, some far-fetched, to see if any of them fit. Throughout the characters’ initial struggle with displacement, a not unnatural familiarity seeps into their discourse. Solutions that two people with intimate knowledge of each other would test to nudge toward recognition. Kitchen utensils are deployed.

Externally, the man and woman explore their surroundings and agree that the house, to whomever it belongs, is lovely. The view of the forest and water on three — no, four — sides from high above is grandly breathtaking. A winding road, barely visible through the trees, hints that egress is at least possible, though to exactly where neither has the slightest idea.

“even on uninhabited island rocks … [the Wren’s] … lively song relieves the awful solitudes.”

Ussher & Warren (1900)

A stone is thrown into the disproportionately calm surface of the pair’s speculation as to the meaning of their situation when a young woman (Caroline Calkins) flits onto the scene and behaves as if she owns the place. This figure (daughter? defense attorney?) calls herself Wren and perches smack dab in the center of the enigma, where she remains throughout the play.

Alt text: Caroline Calkins, as Wren in "A Body of Water," stands with her arms crossed and a thoughtful expression in front of a wooden table on an outdoor deck. She is dressed in a long-sleeved maroon top and light brown leggings. To the right, Kevin O'Rourke and Bella Merlin, portraying Moss and Avis, sit on a wicker couch with red floral cushions. They both wear white shirts and beige shorts, looking down contemplatively. The background shows part of the house, an outdoor kitchen area, and greenery, suggesting a serene yet tense scene from the play.
Moss, Avis, and Wren share a tense moment in Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water; photo by Ken Yotsukura.

Wren, who never stops moving — serving tea, fixing bagels, clearing away the mess, coming in from runs — helps the older man and woman learn that their names are very likely Moss and Avis, respectively. Rather than providing answers directly, Wren turns their questions back around on the pair in a frustrating, warbling dialectic that soon takes a ghastly turn.

Blessing’s choice of names for this inquisitor is more than apt. As a critter, the wren keeps constantly busy at its work, singing a seemingly endless number of tunes. Often associated with good fortune, wisdom, and cheer, the bird is known far and wide as the “king of all birds” — a title Aesop reports it won through cunning. The wren also is saddled with a reputation for treachery, however, responsible for the deaths of both Saint Stephen and John the Baptist, as well as a platoon of Irish soldiers at the near edge of the Middle Ages.

A young woman, Caroline Calkins, portrays Wren in Lee Blessing's "A Body of Water." She is sitting casually on a wooden table, dressed in a maroon tank top and light brown leggings. She has a thoughtful expression, with her dark hair pulled back and a red headband holding it in place. The background shows part of a well-appointed outdoor setting, hinting at a scene from the play.
Caroline Calkins as Wren in Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water; photo by Ken Yotsukura.

In the Celtic mists of the bird’s history, the Faerie Queen was said to visit the mortal world in the shape of a wren. She sowed terror in the archaic European consciousness, as she was known to ride out from her mystical realm (or Hell, depending on how Christianized the lore was) and abduct men or women as the prey of the Faerie Hunt every seven years. Or whenever the fuck she felt like it. Shakespeare gave her the name, Titania, though scholars of Greek mythology have noted that the Faerie Queen may well be a downgraded, emigrant version of the huntress Diana, who, in the aspect of Hectate, was also goddess of the Underworld. Fitting, perhaps, that the wren family’s scientific name, Troglodytidae, means “one who dwells in holes.”

In Japan, the wren is known as the “king of the winds.” The myth of The Wren Among the Hawks tells of how the wren successfully hunts a boar that the hawks could not, by flying into its ear and driving it mad.

While not literally flying into the ears of Moss and Avis, the maybe-daughter Wren definitely invades their ears and drives the pair to the edge of sanity with increasingly shocking revelations, all of which, some of which, or none of which may be true. Calkins breathes exquisite life into her character, who seems, by turns, devoted caretaker and sadistic tormentor. Each day begins anew, with Wren preparing new ways to explain to her “parents” who they all are.

Kevin O'Rourke and Bella Merlin, portraying Moss and Avis in "A Body of Water," stand close together in a moment of intense emotion. O'Rourke has his arm around Merlin, who appears distressed and is gesturing with her hands. Both are dressed in white shirts and beige shorts. The background features part of the house with a window and an outdoor kitchen area, emphasizing the domestic yet unsettling setting of the scene.
Kevin O’Rourke as Moss comforts Bella Merlin as an unraveling Avis in a poignant scene from Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water; photo by Ken Yotsukura.

Blessing has been reported to have said that the play is not about dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, but about isolation. He is also reported to have revealed that the story began to form in his mind during a period of post-divorce post-traumatic stress disorder. Through this lens, many elements that might hastily be judged as throw-away lines take on looming, heartbreaking significance.

Kevin O'Rourke, as Moss, and Caroline Calkins, as Wren, in "A Body of Water." O'Rourke, dressed in a white shirt and beige shorts, sits on a wicker couch with red floral cushions, looking thoughtfully at Calkins. She sits beside him, focused on reading a letter, wearing a maroon top, light brown leggings, and a white jacket. The scene conveys a moment of contemplation and revelation. The background includes green foliage and part of the house, adding to the intimate setting.
Kevin O’Rourke as Moss and Caroline Calkins as Wren in a contemplative moment from Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water; photo by Ken Yotsukura.

Avis and Moss repeatedly ask not only how they came to suffer from this mysterious syndrome, but for how long. In one exchange, Moss dares to consider the possibility that this condition need not have afflicted them both at the same time. That perhaps one of them had sunk into this amnesia before the other, perhaps long before the other. The scene exemplifies the delicate touch O’Rourke has with quiet desperation and all the discrete attendant emotions that swirl around a home where two people wake up one morning, 20 or 30 years into a relationship, stare over their coffee cups, and not recognize the person across the table. He does bombast, bluster, and agony just as well, of course, but O’Rourke’s performance glows because he knows how to play the barely noticeable moments like a cello with gossamer strings.

Bella Merlin, portraying Avis, and Caroline Calkins, portraying Wren in "A Body of Water," sit close together on a wicker couch with red floral cushions. Merlin, dressed in a white shirt and beige pants, looks intently at Calkins, who is wearing a maroon top, light brown leggings, and a white jacket. They hold hands and share a tender, emotional moment. The background includes green foliage and part of the house, enhancing the intimate and heartfelt atmosphere of the scene.
Caroline Calkins as Wren and Bella Merlin as Avis share an intimate moment in Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water; photo by Ken Yotsukura.

The same can be said of Merlin, but in the other direction. Avis, a bird in her own right, anchors the show with a dose of reason here and common sense there at first. As the scenes progress, however, her hard-headed act dissolves. The coping strategies she uses to tread water through some of Moss’ possibly practiced, at times unkind, pomposity seem to sap her energy. The mask of reserved composure displays fissures at first, and then, as Avis grows increasingly frantic to know what is going on, we see emotions gush through the cracks with an unexpectedly anguished intensity.

The pair demand to know the truth, and yet, throughout their tortured inability to put the pieces together, one senses that a more durable instinct compels them to keep the details deeply submerged in the murky seas of their subconscious. And who could blame them? Even a couple surrounded by solid proof of a lifetime together can discover that under the pressure of gradual isolation, individual identity and mutual recollection are just as susceptible to slow, grinding erosion as the dunes at the water’s edge.


By Lee Blessing; directed by James Warwick; sets by Patrick Brennan; costumes by Jaysen Engel; costume design assistant, Michelle Hathaway; sound by Caroline Eng; stage manager, Anthony Feola; Assistant Stage Manager, Christine Zak; Presented by Shakespeare & Company, artistic director; Allyn Burrows; General Manager, Stephen D. Ball at the Roman Garden Theatre, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, Mass. (413) 637-3353. Through July 21. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

WITH: Kevin O’Rourke (Moss), Bella Merlin (Avis) and Caroline Calkins (Wren).

Jason Velázquez

Jason Velázquez has worked in print and digital journalism and publishing for two decades.
Phone: (413) 776-5125

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