Theater: Prime Time

‘Marjorie Prime’ explores limits of what technology can replace

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‘Marjorie Prime,’ onstage at Marin Theatre Company, mixes artificial intelligence with family drama. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Watching Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime unfold as the final entry in Marin Theatre Company’s (MTC) 2017-2018 season, I was reminded of Winston Churchill’s inability to describe the USSR’s brand of communism. Full of inconsistencies, it was ripe material for learned treatises, but no one had a definitive explanation.

Harrison’s play may not be quite that opaque, but the increasing sci-fi elements he introduces kept pushing the limits of my suspension of disbelief and even now, having read and re-read the script, I can’t truly say that he persuaded me to come aboard with the enthusiasm I witnessed in the opening night audience and in many of the reviews that have followed.

Before proceeding further, let me say upfront that MTC’s production is solid throughout. Ken Rus Schmoll’s nuanced direction is spot-on. Most importantly, the four-actor ensemble, led by Bay Area veteran Joy Carlin in the title role, is a pleasure to watch as they thread their way through Harrison’s obstacle course.

The year is 2062. Carlin’s Marjorie is an 85-year-old widow who is suffering from an unspecified progressive dementia that is causing her to lose her interest in life, including eating. Having resisted institutional care, she lives with her emotional daughter Tess (Julie Eccles) and son-in-law Jon (the play’s steady anchor, sympathetically portrayed by Anthony Fusco), passing the majority of her time sitting on a well-worn chair staring into the void. Concern about Marjorie’s declining mental and physical health, and believing that she may be influenced by memories of past problems within the family (son Damian’s suicide, unresolved mother/daughter conflicts, her husband Walter’s death), Tess and Jon engage the assistance of an organization called “Senior Serenity.”

Here’s where sci-fi begins to take over, although Harrison, in a note appended to the script, claims otherwise. It seems that Senior Serenity has developed what he says are “sophisticated artificial intelligence programs” using holographic projections to create images that can move around and speak, but have no physical presence. These are called “primes.” Marjorie’s prime is an image of her deceased husband Walter at the age of 30 (a handsome, smartly dressed Thomas Gorrebeeck), who has been carefully programmed to help his human counterpart recall happy events when they were both young.

It works—to a point. Marjorie’s spirits rise and, with them, her native feistiness. There is even evidence that she has begun snacking out of the peanut butter jar! Time passes and apparently (although we’re not specifically made aware of it), so does Marjorie. Harrison then moves to Tess, who is having an existential crisis linked to the same family problems that disturbed her mother, plus a general world weariness. She sinks into a deep depression, resisting every effort Jon makes to meet with friends. Jon calls Senior Serenity and Tess gets her own “prime” in the holographic form of a younger Marjorie, which gives Tess a chance to work on their differences.  As her mood apparently improves, he persuades her to accompany him on a vacation trip to Madagascar, only to hang herself from a tree in their campground. Now, it’s Jon who needs a prime, who happens to be Tess (although we’re not told who put in the order—maybe Senior Serenity has been paid in advance out of a family account?)

There are so many loose ends. How can holographs—mere projections of pixels—have a physical presence as people, with all that entails, including the ability to speak, think, feel emotion and move from place to place without programmed guidance? That’s only the beginning of my questions. Marjorie Prime is a very short play that aspires to epic trans-generational form.  At the end, we find the three primes in some unknown future chatting together like limo drivers awaiting their employers. Will they get together for a drink after their work is done?

Maybe these kinds of issues explain why I never took to sci-fi, but I have to admit, like Churchill’s view of Soviet communism, that they can provoke lively discussion.

NOW PLAYING: Marjorie Prime runs through May 27 at Marin Theatre Company, 387 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.

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