Jordan Harrison is a prolific American playwright whose output is considered a little off-kilter. By that, I mean, he usually begins with a bizarre premise, and Marjorie Prime is a perfect example. Not surprisingly, the play’s intriguing plot made it a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. Another of Harrison’s writing credits is the hit television series Orange is the New Black, so he knows how to build both character and tension, and both abound in Marjorie Prime. The play makes for an absorbing theatrical experience, and having the great Martha Henry on board certainly gilds the lily.
Marjorie (Henry) is an 85-year-old woman who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, we presume. Her daughter Tess (Sarah Dodd) and son-in-law Jon (Beau Dixon) have provided her with a Prime companion, a computer-generated hologram of her late husband Walter (Gordon Hecht). Marjorie has opted for the young and handsome Walter of her youth, rather than an aged one. The Prime service is designed, we gather, as a memory aid. Walter is fed memories by Marjorie, so the hologram can help her remember when she forgets, as they engage in conversation. He is a memory stimulator, as it were, whose sole purpose is to tell Marjorie stories. The holograms can also ask questions to clarify memories. While the Prime companions never forget anything they are told, they can also change memories if that’s what the person wants. To give away more of the plot would be a real spoiler, but I will say that there is more than one Prime.
As I was watching the play, I never considered Marjorie Prime as science fiction, but many do. I just accepted the fact that artificial intelligence would sooner or later come up with a CGI designed to help the elderly with failing memories, or as an antidote for loneliness, or as an in-home therapy session. I’d love to have such a CGI in the future. In fact, director Stewart Arnott has cleverly made the action so naturalistic as to seem ordinary, and this approach really helps the family dynamics that Harrison has built into the play. The storyline is not just about holograms, but real people and all the dysfunctions that make up a family history. We certainly learn a great deal about these characters and their difficult relationships. It’s also important to point out that Arnott, in a directing coup, has somehow made the holograms seem not quite real – a glassy smile, a too pleasant demeanour, and we pick that up right away.
As a writer, Harrison is sly. He throws in an innocuous line here and there that is just a little odd, or that jars, and our mind goes, oh, oh, wait a minute, what does that mean? and sooner or later, we get pointed into a new direction. Harrison can certainly channel an audience, and it is an engrossing journey. Gillian Gallow’s simple living room/kitchen set is perfect for Arnott’s direct approach, but the director has let lighting designer Nick Blais and composer Bram Gielen go to town with special effects that add an air of mystery. At very specific times, and never overdone, we get a sound and light show that indicates that there is more going on than just reality.
Henry is a national treasure, and just having her on stage in Toronto is a gift of the gods. As the aging Marjorie, she uses her total body to convey a woman suffering from arthritis. Even her hands and fingers are acting tools, and she can manoeuvre her voice brilliantly, sliding it around words to create the optimum effect of meaning. From the get-go, Dodd presents a troubled soul. She really doesn’t believe in the Prime system. In fact, she has trouble believing in anything. Her Tess is a coiled spring waiting to pounce, and Dodd nails her negative aura perfectly. Dixon is the long-suffering Mr. Nice Guy, but we know that frustrations are bubbling just below the surface. Caught between his wife and his mother-in-law, his Jon is in a precarious position, and Dixon does a great job telegraphing that razor’s edge. From the start, Hecht is not human, and, although this is going to sound strange, his warmth has a coldness. His Walter is perfect casting, and Hecht gives his character both closeness and distance at the same time, which is quite a feat of acting.
Harrison raises many questions about the nature of memory in Marjorie Prime, and certainly, that is important, but that is not what I find so compelling about the play. For me, it is the intersection between the future and the present. Harrison’s creation of the Prime companion is a fascinating one, as is the way the playwright has detailed how these holograms interact with humans. We are our memories, and giving them away is a daunting prospect.
Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison, directed by Stewart Arnott, Coal Mine Theatre, Jan. 26 to Feb. 23, 2020.