Sci-fi drama at Marin Theatre Company brings memory to eerie life
Memory is unreliable at the best of times. No sooner do we have an experience than we start to edit it mentally and different people’s versions of what happened start to diverge. The stories we tell about our past become self-perpetuating, refined in the retelling to take on a life on their own as a kind of personal mythology.
Playwright Jordan Harrison plays off that phenomenon fascinatingly in “Marjorie Prime,” his play making its Bay Area premiere at Marin Theatre Company. (There’s another production playing at Capital Stage in Sacramento.) A 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist, the play was also made into a feature film released last year. The Brooklyn-based playwright and Stanford grad’s work has previously played both American Conservatory Theater (“Maple and Vine,” in 2012) and Berkeley Repertory Theatre (“Finn in the Underworld,” in 2005).
Played with dotty charm by Joy Carlin, Marjorie is a woman in her 80s whose memory has begun to fail her. When she’s alone she has conversations with a computer program called a “Prime” in the image of her late husband, Walter, at age 30. This Walter Prime is designed to share her own memories with her, always learning through conversation how to be a better Walter and more details of Marjorie’s life to feed back to her. Tommy Gorrebeeck is placid as this virtual Walter, at times playful and even flirtatious, and always earnestly trying to understand so as better to help.
But Walter only knows what he’s been told, by Marjorie and by others, a version of events that’s been revised, romanticized and sanitized both by the attrition of time and by traumatic truths that are easier left unremembered. He’s the almost lifelike embodiment of the selectiveness of memory.
Kimie Nishikawa’s set depicts a spacious and spartan living room of unfinished wood that you can smell as you walk in. Marjorie sits in an old-fashioned, weathered easy chair while Walter occupies a sleek, ultra-modern and much less comfortable-looking couch.
Julie Eccles is brimming with frustration as Tess, Marjorie’s daughter, who’s dubious of the Prime technology and resentful that her mother can conveniently forget all the things that made their relationship so difficult. Anthony Fusco is patient and kind as Tess’ amiable husband Jon, making easy banter with Marjorie and trying his best to mollify Tess.
The play takes place 40-odd years in the future, but aside from the advances in artificial intelligence, it’s not particularly futuristic. What little is visible in terms of personal possessions — a few books, a small radio — are perfectly recognizable, even a little old fashioned. But some of Marjorie’s references (ZZ Top, some Beyonce lyrics, even the phrase “busted”) are completely foreign to her middle-aged son-in-law.
Exactly what the Primes are is left up to the imagination. They appear onstage simply as people, represented by an actor sitting in a chair. In the world of the play we don’t know whether they show up on a computer screen or as holograms or robots. Those details aren’t discussed and ultimately aren’t that important. When not in use, the Primes just sit or stand still off to the side somewhere while other people talk, always present but inactive. We’re left to wonder about their essential nature, not just as technology but in their quasi-personhood that strives to improve itself.
In a effectively disquieting staging by New York director Ken Rus Schmoll (who also recently helmed Annie Baker’s “John” for ACT), this smart, 70-minute play moves on from one time to the next so briskly that it’s almost jarring. Just as things are really getting interesting with a character, that person disappears and we’re on to something else. In that sense, the play gives us the tiniest taste of why these surrogate versions of loved ones are created in the first place. People in the play vanish before we’re ready for them to go, with a lot left unresolved, and all we can do is move on, or perhaps wallow in memory and regrets.
— Sam Hurwitt, Marin IJ Read full review