Review By Joe Eriole
In promoting its production of Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, the Phoenicia Playhouse asks the following question: “If you could purchase a ‘copy’ of a recently deceased loved one, would you?” The show is described as “a chilling drama about the unreliability of memory and the mystery of immortality in the age of artificial intelligence.” It is a credit to the playwright and this production that both the question and the description are accurate, but inadequate. Director Michael Koegler and his talented cast invest this beautifully devised script with such a depth of possible interpretations that no audience member can fail to connect with one or more of its poignant threads. It is further evidence of the Company’s understanding of the importance of the themes that they have invited the audience to participate in talk-backs with the cast after every show. It is difficult to imagine an audience that will not want to stay to bond further with these performers.
Marjorie Prime was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in drama in 2015. On the most basic level, the story explores a future where the image of deceased loved ones can be conjured as more than physical replicas or holograms, but as learning-enabled “Primes,” who continually process the information with which they are initially programmed in light of all they are told by the living who conjure them. We meet our first Prime when Marjorie (Prudence Garcia Renart), a woman in her eighties, in failing physical health and suffering from dementia, is engaged in reminiscing with the most dashing Prime version of her long-dead husband Walter (Austin Lightning Carrothers). Marjorie lives with her dutiful but edgy daughter, Tess (Rebecca Brown Adelman) and earnest son-in-law Jon (Phillip X Levine), whose difference of opinion about the value of the Prime provide our first, but by no means last, exploration of the play’s deepest themes. The title gives enough of a glimpse of the narrative’s next movement that it is no spoiler to mention it here: we eventually meet Marjorie Prime, after Marjorie’s death. Beyond that, it would betray the power of seeing this beautiful piece to divulge more about the storyline: this is a play that should be seen.
Suffice it to say the storyline allows us the opportunity to see Primes perform their function without the context of what their “character” was like when living, and also to see them after we’ve gotten to know them during their lifetime. This dynamic, coupled with the ordinary limitations of our memory, our natural desire to remember things as better or worse than they were in order to help process where we find ourselves now, and the fact that all of our relationships are viewed through individual lenses which include biases, lies, truths and pretenses, longings, and joys, work together to create a simmering intensity of feeling in which the audience is a full and willing participant.
Weighty questions are stirred up from the first moment to the last. Which version of our loved ones would we imagine, and what purpose would we want them to serve? Is it enough to say that we miss them and want them around to talk with us? Or, do we want them to say something in particular, even if they might never have said it while they were alive? And, if our living loved ones brought us back as Primes, what memories of our relationship would we discover were most important to them? Perhaps most fundamental, would access to such possibilities be good or bad for us?
There is also a not-so-subtle subtext which derives from the element of Marjorie’s dementia, and from the debate of Tess and Jon over how to “program” the Prime: even without access to the “Prime” technology contrived by the playwright, we do, to some extent, live in imagined worlds all the time, as we strive to fill gaps in relationships, interpret what we’ve done, or motivate and justify what we intend to do. The Prime technology, for the time being, is science fiction; but the play is not.
The cast is clearly attuned to these elements, and one need not wait until the post-show talk-back to confirm. From its opening moments, the depth of connection between each actor and their role is evident.
In the role of Marjorie, Ms. Garcia Renart commands attention. She is at once the mischievous Marjorie of her youth and the muddled Marjorie of her last years; we have no problem seeing her as the Marjorie of her daughter’s mind’s eye, or as the Marjorie her spouse’s Prime is programmed to reflect – a programming in which she herself, participates. And her transformation when she is her own Prime, is exceptionally effective.
Adelman Brown is gripping as Tess. The performance is filled with a palpable sense of dangerously controlled anger and longing; her mastery of Tess’s caustic and colorful personality is mesmerizing. Brown’s powerful presence is the fulcrum on which the other characters, both real and imagined, balance.
Levine imbues Jon with a painfully appealing longing of his own; the desire that both his mother-in-law and his wife should be happy, that they surround themselves with their best reality, is played with such sincerity, that our last glimpse of him on stage – unable to create that same illusion for himself – becomes one of the most powerful moments in the play.
Carrothers gives a haunting performance as Walter, who is never known to us in life; we only meet him though the bruised, battered and often wishful memories of those who knew him. The strength of his performance in this mode of forced temperance does as much as anything else in the show to make us question what Prime technology would really mean to us.
The show is wonderfully directed by Michael Koegel, whose light but decisive touch reveal a trust in the actors and in the importance of the material which is refreshing. It leads to a show that is engrossing, not heavy or ponderous, despite its often weighty and emotional themes. The show is eminently watchable, sharply paced, and beautifully presented.
Phoenicia Playhouse is commended for putting on such an interesting piece when local playhouses are under such pressure to showcase bigger shows with better-known titles. But, of course, no commendation will do as much to ensure more work of this quality than to have audiences see the show. Local theater-goers could not make a better choice this season than to spend their entertainment time and resources on this compelling and masterfully performed show.
Marjorie Prime runs through Sun, May 19, 2019; Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2, Tickets: $20 and $18 (Seniors & Students) Tickets are available online at https://phoeniciaplayhouse.com/productions or oat the door
Joe Eriole is a local actor, director and artist, who has been part of the live music and theater arts community in the Hudson Valley for over 30 years. Professionally Joe is an attorney, organizational executive and management consultant. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife and has two children who are currently making the world a better place.