Monday, January 16, 2017

Marjorie Prime

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard

Marjorie Prime debuts at North Coast Repertory

“What do you know about this play?” asked the man who sat down next to me Sunday afternoon (Jan. 15) at North Coast Repertory Theater.

“Only what I read,” said I.

“And what is that?”

What I knew was what PR woman Nancy Richards had told me. Set some time in the future, Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime concerns an older woman’s interaction with an artificial intelligence. Richards’ press information also said that upon the play’s 2014 New York premiere, the Times called it “an elegant, thoughtful, quietly unsettling drama.” It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama.

What the play dredged up in this reviewer is enough to fill a good size memoir of elder relatives and the settings in which they sought to explore their memories and feelings, at the same time revealing their scars, their inability to understand the change going on around them (we young’uns hardly understood either) and their loneliness due to the fact that there was no one to listen to and take seriously their fears and concerns. Has anything really changed?

Only the listener has changed. He is Walter (Steve Froehlich), an artificial intelligence known as a Prime, representing Marjorie’s late, beloved husband, programmed on an ongoing basis to listen to the 86-year-old Marjorie (Dee Maaske, enjoyed for many years at Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as he elicits her memories and seeks to ameliorate the sorrow she endures as she sits unmoving in her chair. She mourns Walter, of course. But also their teenage son, thought by everyone to be well adjusted and happy, who committed suicide at 13. She hasn’t spoken of him in all the decades since.

Dee Maaske as Marjorie
All photos by Aaron Rumley

Other characters are Tess (Elaine Rivkin), Marjorie’s unhappy, unbalanced midlife daughter, and Jon (Gregory North), Tess’s truly kind husband. As is frequently the case, mothers and daughters being what they are, he has more empathy and concern for Marjorie than Tess has.
Elaine Rivkin as Tess and Gregory North as Jon

Marjorie’s history is explored in tiny revelations concerning the past, her flirtatious nature, her youthful allure and her locking away of tragedy. She is expected, through Walter’s presence, not to recover but to get better, or at least be prevented from getting worse, to become more involved in things like taking care of herself, eating and going outdoors.

Just when we think we’ve got a handle on who is who and who is what, the playwright throws us a left curve, exploding our take on the “when” of things. In my psyche – at my time of life I'm Marjorie’s contemporary – the  play is certainly unsettling and not as gentle as The New York Times would have us believe.
Almost a sweet mother/daughter talk
Dee Maaske and Elaine Rivkin
Harrison’s text is rife with pithy, wise and wounding quotes, for instance, Tess’s observation deep into the denouement, “I don't see why we have to keep each other alive for so long.” This is the constant lament of those who don’t know how to cope with another’s deep, lasting grief. The other profound wisdom, uttered by Jon, is that we are fortunate to have loved another so deeply.

Directed by Matthew Wiener, Marjorie Prime is beautifully produced upon Marty Burnett’s spare set with intimations of the cosmos; lighting design by Matt Novotny; costume design by Elisa Benzoni, whose sweaters are divinely inspired; and sound design (lovely Vivaldi from The Seasons' "Winter" section) by Melanie Chen.

As I waited in the restroom line after the show, the man behind me asked, “Well, what did you think of the play?”

Knowing I had to discuss just that today with readers, I replied, “I’d rather not talk about it.” He thought that uproariously funny. Au contraire.

Now that I have written, I intend to find a script and read the New York Times review. Meanwhile, if you love a good mystery and fine acting, get yourself to North Coast Rep.

Marjorie Prime continues at 7pm Wednesdays and Sundays, 8pm Thursdays-Saturdays, and 2pm Saturdays and Sundays at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, $40-$50. or 858-481-1055. 

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