Review: Bay area premiere of ‘Marjorie Prime’ at Marin Theatre Company (*****)

by Charles Kruger

Joy Carlin as Marjorie in Marin Theatre Company’s Bay area premiere of “Marjorie Prime” by Jordan Harrison. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Jordan Harrison (author of “Maple and Vine” and  other exceptional plays) achieves the remarkable with “Marjorie Prime,” a rare sort of play that hits every mark: it is entertaining, has intellectual depth both philosophically and as social comment, and takes us on an empathic emotional ride with characters worth caring about. And on top of all that, it has been given a superb production at Marin Theatre Company.

The year is 2062 and Generation X-er Marjorie is 85 years old and living with her daughter and son-in-law, who are concerned for her fading memory and gradually increasing dementia. Their solution: They have purchased a companion robot (called a Prime) to help. The robot has the appearance of Marjorie’s dead husband Walter, as he appeared as a young man. Walter is programmed to encourage Marjorie to share her memories. As she provides information, the robot remembers every detail of her stories, so that it becomes more and more like the real Walter—or, at least, Walter as the unreliable Marjorie is able to remember. Are these memories real? Is Walter real? Is it possible to know the truth of Marjorie’s past, or is her memory just a fabrication constructed of clues and conversation?

As Marjorie, Joy Carlin is riveting. At first, she is confused and barely present, but gradually, as she interacts with Walter as well as her daughter and son-in-law, she begins to reconstruct  memories, and the character becomes fuller and richer. But can her memories be relied upon? Do we see the real Marjorie? Carlin’s performance captures all of this ambivalence, at one moment completely convincing and wavering at the next. It is an uncanny picture of dementia, moving and empathic. As Walter Prime (the Robot), Thomas Gorrebeeck is simultaneously kind and creepy, human and humanoid, sympathetic and repellant.

All of this ambivalence about Marjorie and Walter is not lost upon the daughter and son-in-law. Marjorie’s daughter Tess (wonderfully performed by Julie Eccles), is angry and confused. She has doubts whether this new Mom is a good thing. The memories Mom develops do not match Tess’s, and Tess is determined to remain immune to the charms of Walter Prime. Struggling with depression and her own memories of a dysfunctional girlhood, she doesn’t like watching the mother she remembers drift away to be replaced by this new, unpredictable and confusing old lady. In fact, she seems to wonder if this new Marjorie is a kind of “Marjorie Prime” herself? Not the real Marjorie, but a construction, like the computer, Walter.

Tess’s husband, Jon (played well with stalwart sympathy by Anthony Fusco), does not share her concern. If Marjorie is happier, and less confused, what does it matter? Truth, after all, is slippery under the best of circumstances. Jon just wants his family to find what happiness they can. An easy-going optimist in love with his wife of many years, he struggles to live with her increasing anger and depression under the stress of her mother’s decline and their own absent daughter’s alienation.

These complex issues raise a question relevant to us all: “What is a family and how do we remember our shared lives?” The introduction of the futuristic fantasy of robot Walter is not gimmicky, but acts as a kind of microscope that permits the playwright to look deeply into these complexities from an unusual and engaging angle.

In the course of the play, there is a surprising plot twist (I won’t reveal it here) that deepens the intellectual and emotional stakes considerably.

The overall effect of “Marjorie Prime” is quite haunting, and carries us into states of mind,  memory, and emotion that seem to be simultaneously new and familiar.

This is a memory play, and, as such, the design elements are of particular importance. Brendan Aanes’s lovely sound design is supportive without being intrusive, and the same can be said of the excellent work of scenic designer Kimie Nishikawa, lighting designer Michael Palumbo, and costume designer Jessie Amoroso.

Director Ken Rus Schmoll has carefully polished this multi-faceted gem of a play to a fine sparkle, like a rising star in the twilight.

“Marjorie Prime” plays at Marin Theatre Company through May 27. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ***** (for an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“Marjorie Prime” by Jordan Harrison, a bay area premiere presented by Marin Theatre Company. Director: Ken Rus Schmoll. Scenic Designer: Kimie Nishikawa. Lighting Designer: Michael Palumbo.Costume Designer: Jessie Amoroso. Sound Designer: Brendan Aanes.

Cast:

Marjorie: Joy Carlin. Tess: Julie Eccles. Jon: Anthony Fusco.Walter: Tommy Gorrebeeck.

 

 

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