You can’t trust anything these days, especially memories. Being human, we treat them like modeling clay—stretching, reshaping, pounding and molding our memories until they are the lumpen leftovers of our personal folklore.
Memories, mortality and loss are the themes in Jordan Harrison’s unnerving well-made play Marjorie Prime, a work that is at once futuristic and timeless.
Olney artistic director Jason Loewith directs this eerie, yet all-too-familiar work with skill and grace, leading a pristine cast carefully and purposefully through the emotional minefields.
On the surface, Marjorie Prime looks and feels like a modern domestic dramedy, with a mother and daughter wrestling over their incomplete and unsettled relationship. Marjorie (Kathleen Butler, in a magisterial performance) is an 85-year-old former femme fatale who, due to severe memory problems, is living with her combative, controlling daughter Tess (Julie-Ann Elliott, a taut as former violinist Marjorie’s strings) and her conciliating husband Jon (Michael Willis).
The play is set in the mid-21st century, which resembles today except that technology is even more seamlessly integrated into all aspects of life. Marjorie sits in the living room (kudos for scenic designer Misha Kachman for making contemporary décor almost creepily generic and soothing) chatting with Walter (Michael Glenn), a much-younger man who seems just a shade stiff, his smile oddly all-purpose.
Walter is a Prime, a “chatbot” designed for dementia therapy. He looks like Marjorie’s late husband in his prime years, before tragedy, disappointment and sickness. Walter is a sponge, soaking up Marjorie’s memories, then processing and preserving them.
Walter takes in only what you tell him, a concept that comforts Marjorie, who appreciates that her life stories will live on, albeit selectively chosen and heavily filtered. Jon has some fun with it—planting whimsical details in Marjorie’s memories. Tess is freaked out by Walter, and feels competitive for her mother’s attention.
Their reactions to the Prime (and there are more of them as the play goes along) begs the eternal question—what is the purpose of memories? Do they give life meaning or are they merely unreliable evidence that we have lived, that we were here?
And what if technology gives us the opportunity to take out the bad stuff, the unhappy times? Would the absence of pain and sadness in our minds render us less human?
Playwright Harrison, who writes for the powerhouse Netflix show Orange is the New Black, deftly weaves in the futuristic angle, without letting it get all Twilight Zone-y. Marjorie Prime will hit home for anyone who cared or is caring for an aging relative dealing with memory issues, as well as for aging baby boomers who walk into a room and wonder why they are there or use their smartphone to look up the name of so-and-so or that restaurant they like so much, you know, the one with warm breadsticks.
Elliott is without vanity in the often unlikableness of Tess. However spiky Tess can be, Elliott makes sure we see her vulnerabilities– that her demand for control is because of the uncertainty of her childhood, which colors her present relationships with her mother and husband.
Willis is patience personified as Jon, but he also conveys a touching wistfulness for a marriage and a life that isn’t there.
There’s a sci-fi spookiness to Marjorie Prime, but it also evokes classic drama in its treatment of tragic flaws that run through bloodlines (in this case, severe depression) and the primacy of love. The memories of this family are speckled with details and specifics, but at their root they reveal people who have loved and were loved, warts and all. No artificial intelligence can top that.
Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison . Directed by Jason Loewith . Featuring Kathleen Butler, Julie-Ann Elliott, Michael Glenn, Michael Willis . Scenic Design: Misha Kachman . Costume Design: Ivania Stack . Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills . Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz . Production Stage Manager: Becky Reed . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Through April 10 at the Olney Theatre Center
Approximately 80 minutes with no intermission