Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Velvet Swing
These primes are not human, let alone living beings, but move and behave very much like humans. Their knowledge of you and your life, for that matter of themselves and their lives, is based on what you and others tell them. They remember every bit of input, and are programmed to put pieces together to form logical conclusions about their lives. They can be customized to look, permanently, like your lost loved one at any stage in his or her life. Marjorie is 85 and sliding into dementia. Her companion is Walter Prime, Walter being her husband who died 10 years before. Marjorie has chosen a prime that does not look as she would have last seen Walter, but as a handsome, nattily groomed 30-year-old.
Marjorie lives with her daughter Tess and son-in-law Jon, both in their 50s. Tess is skeptical about using an artificial stand-in for her father as a tool to remind Marjorie about the life she has lived. In part, Tess, who has always had a fraught relationship with her mother, may be envious, saying to Jon "she treats that thing better than she treats me." Jon has more confidence in using this new technology as a tool to ease the encroaching losses at the end of life. Tess opines that Walter Prime is feeding her mother illusions, but Jon counters that Walter Prime is just reminding Marjorie that she had an interesting life.
Over the course of eighty-five minutes we see both the benefits and drawbacks of these devices, intended to promote serenity. Marjorie enjoys reliving the blush of courtship with dashing young Walter Prime, and she goads him to retell the same delightful storieswhich he obligingly does, assuring her "I have all the time in the world." On the other hand, there are things about their past Walter Prime does not know, and that Tess and Jon intend to keep it from knowing, so as not to stir up memories that would cause Marjorie to suffer. Still, Marjorie's time is running out.
Later, a conflict ensues between Tess and Jon over whether or not a prime should be used to alter one's outlook toward one's own life. Can a prime offer Tess the opportunity to recast bitter relationships into something sweet and nurturing? Does Tess even want that or does she prefer the memories of life as she lived it, even with its blistering hurts? Tess rails out to Jon that the prime cannot offer genuine feelings, but is a mere backboard, returning the feelings that are fed into it, as a backboard returns the basketball. Tess is intensely unhappy with her past, but is not willing to replace it with a redacted version.
Director Elena Giannetti gives the production fluid pacing, allowing the humor imbedded throughout Harrison's script to come out naturally in the interactions among the characters, seamlessly shifting into moments of emotional anguish as truth replaces stories. Although the play is set in 2062, and some clever insertions regarding changing taste in music underscore the fact that the late 20th century is considered very far in the past, the visual contextthe well-appointed living room setting by Joseph Stanley and the casually styled costumes designed by Amy B. Kaufman all have the look of 2019. This may prompt us to consider Marjorie Prime in terms of what it says about our lives today, even though the premise of the plot requires it to be set in the future.
Candace Barrett Birk is wonderful as Marjorie, fighting to maintain her dignity as she loses her grip on life, and to draw out every shard of evidence that says hers has been a good life. When she reappears as Marjorie Prime, she is the same person, yet without the fear of eminent loss, confident in simply being the woman others tell her she was. Laura Stearns truly shines as Tess, who has learned to use her words as armor to fend off her warring thoughts, sometimes generating her own misery by overthinking small matters, yet capable of showing tenderness to her mother and succumbing to the calming persuasions of her husband.
Andre Shoals is excellent as Jon, an optimist who has worked hard to balance out his wife's cynicism, and who has learned not to take life's slings and arrows so seriously. Still, there comes a time when he needs to be consoled, and Shoals conveys the deep well of sadness that overtakes Jon. Shoals and Stearns have a good chemistry that makes them seem believable as a couple who have endured a host of ups and downs in their thirty years together. James Rodriguez is a one-note character as Walter Prime, programmed to be polite and serene, but Rodriguez, whose range is far greater than this part calls for, plays it well, and with the requisite handsome visage.
Harrison's play prompts a host of questions, about the degree to which we exercise choice in curating our memories, and whether or not we are better off remembering our past pains and disappointments, or blotting those out, being able to look back at a life of unrelenting pleasantness. Near the end it is unflappable Jon who realizes that not only do we limit how much of our truth we offer to others, but that others can limit what truth they are willing to accept. Even a prime has the capacity to screen out input that causes static interference with its programming.
Marjorie Prime is a chewy kind of play, with an interesting narrative of a family going through difficult transitions with unique new forces that make it possible to reshape our memories. Technology has a central role as a vehicle for taking control of the way in which we remember our lives, but the play is not about technology. It is about who gets to decide what stories about ourselves and our lives stay with us, and whether or not truth matters. Prime Productions has given this thoughtful, sharply written play a totally winning production. It is the kind of play that can provoke lively conversation for the entirety of the ride home from the theater, and stay with you the next day and beyond.
Prime Productions' Marjorie Prime, through May 19, 2019, at Park Square Theatre's Andy Boss Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $60.00. Age 30 and under, $21.00; Students and educators - $16.00; Seniors (62+) - $5.00 discount; Military - $10.00 discount, ASL/AD patrons - 1/2 price for you and a guest. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or visit parksquaretheatre.org. For information about Prime Productions go to primeprods.org.
Playwright: Jordan Harrison; Director: Elena Giannetti; Scenic Design and Technical Director: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Amy B. Kaufman; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Kati Korpi; Wig Design: Laura Stearns; Voice Coach: Foster Johns; Music: Norah Long; Assistant Director: Ashawnti Sakina Ford; Stage Manager: Jamie J. Kranz; Assistant Stage Managers: Kalena Johnson and Kelly Yount; Producers: Alison Edwards and Shelli Place.
Cast: Candace Barrett Birk (Marjorie), James Rodriguez (Walter), Laura Stearns (Tess), Andre Shoals (Jon).