By its very craft, Jordan Harrison’s trim, yet expansive Marjorie Prime demonstrates how life and art are both changed utterly by a rigorous editing. The Village Rep’s production at the Woolfe Street Playhouse may clock in at an efficient 80 minutes (plus a quick intermission), but that doesn’t mean you won’t walk away from this intricately woven sci-fi family drama with ample, dense questions regarding the fearsome future of mankind.
Marjorie Prime is a virtual study in the power of the edit. And I do mean virtual. Directed by Keely Enright and gathering four actors, the play culls the top notes from the life of an ageing wife and mother named Marjorie, who has found curious ways to leave the dreary bits on the cutting room floor. As audience members, we unpack this by way of the family members who come and go, and include her husband Walter; daughter Tess; and Tess’s husband Jon.
Chucked aside are those other parts and people that may very well have dominated bygone days, but carry with them less-than-cozy associations. Sure, they probably defined her life, but in the strange new world of artificial intelligence, they don’t have to shape her memory of it. Ping-ponging between past and present, the play offers its characters the most digestible memories, which are often stripped of crucial context.
For instance, Marjorie’s courtship to her husband Walter makes the cut, but the ensuing tragedies of their marriage are excised. We discover the omitted unpleasantness from other characters as we slowly piece together Marjorie’s life — not from what is fondly remembered, but from what she’d rather forget.
In order to best revel in her marital bliss, Marjorie thereby interacts with a Walter many decades her junior. I’d tell you how, but I hereby join the play’s gang by electing to suppress the method of this mind-bender. There’s far more fun in figuring it out for yourself. And I suspect that is the intention of the playwright, as unpacking Marjorie’s truths from her tragedies is essential to creating the dramatic tension that leads to the discomfiting shivers.
But I’ll tell you this much: the increasingly creepy capacities of technology play a leading role in Marjorie Prime, particularly artificial intelligence. (The clue is in the name, incidentally.) Like the play’s techno-dependent characters, I availed of a quick click to gain more background on the work. The play, which was presented by Playwrights Horizons in 2015, was made into a moody sci-fi flick in 2017, teleporting Lois Smith in the role of Marjorie from stage to screen, and also starring heavy Hollywood hitters like Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins.
In Village Rep’s production, Marjorie is played by Samille Basler, Charleston’s ur-elder stateswoman, portraying the fragile, failing Marjorie with tender mercies. A plucky, fresh-faced John Black is her unlikely lifelong companion Walter – but just how he Benjamin Buttoned on us you’ll have to find out for yourself. Then there’s Tess, played with earnest edge by Edie Allen, and her husband Jon, who is given amiable ballast by Jay Danner.
Enright’s subdued, smart set spans Tess and Jon’s living room, and by design offers little clues of time and place, hewing to the program’s note that the time is in the not-so-distant future. In this intentionally unremarkable home, the family ambles in and out, shifting from kitchen to couch as families do. Throughout, there is no indication of any futuristic happenings afoot — until, of course, there is.
Yes, it all seems so familiar, this nuclear family navigating the decline of its matriarch. That is, until Marjorie Prime veers into the wildly unfamiliar zone that may just be the next chapter of the human experience. That future may still be the hands of mortals who heave and sigh under failing bodies, but they may have a few technological tricks up their sleeves to render our present reality unrecognizable.
Another click in my Internet wanderings, quite serendipitously landed on some recent articles in Vanity Fair pointing up the possibility that A.I. is running amok. One prognosticator gives us a sobering 730 years.
If all this doom-and-gloom theoretical talk of the Apocalypse is a bit more than you can stomach, consider dipping a toe in to the notion by way of Village Rep’s absorbing and intimate production of Marjorie Prime. By downshifting to the particulars of one woman and her family, you may well wrap your head around the chilling implications of the technology beast we’ve unleashed.