Review | Marjorie Prime: evocative and poignant

Park Square Theatre, through May 19

Laura Stearns, Andre Shoals, Candace Barrett Birk in MARJORIE PRIME. Photo by Devon Cox.

What does it meant to be human? Is it the small changes in our DNA that separate us from our close animal kingdom relatives? Or is it the experiences, memories and moments we accumulate day by day, everything from the painful, to the exhilarating to the mundane?

Prime Production’s Marjorie Prime, (Park Square, through May 19), written by Jordan Harrison, tackles these questions with a vengeance, helped along by a cast that crackles with emotion from start to finish I was lucky enough to speak to some of the Ladies of PRIME after the production and co-founders Allison Edwards and Shelli Place explained that although the play deals with important themes centering around dementia, it isn’t just about “putting mother in a home.”

Instead Marjorie Prime takes a wholly unique and at times unnerving approach to a story that, at its root, forces the audience to confront the uncomfortable realities of aging, loss, caring for loved ones who are no longer able to care for themselves, and the experiences that have so completely shaped us for better or worse.

The play, which takes place in a future almost exactly like our own except for a few advances in technology, follows elderly Marjorie played by Candace Barret Birk during the last stages of her dementia. Marjorie is living with her daughter Tess played by Laura Stearns and her son-in-law Jon played by Andre Shoals. Tess and Jon, despite Tess’s reservations, get a “Prime” for Marjorie which is an artificial intelligence unit that can take on the look and mannerisms of a loved one.

Marjorie’s Prime takes on the appearance of Marjorie’s deceased husband Walter played by James Rodríguez. Walter can relay back to Marjorie the highlights of her life but the only memories that Walter can relay are events, memories and facts that the unit is told. Which leads to an interesting debate between Tess and Jon about what they ultimately decide to tell the Prime, which memories they elaborate, enhance or falsify and which painful memories they leave out.

Both Tess and Jon end up getting a Prime of their own: first Tess interacts with a prime of Marjorie when her mother passes, and later Jon tries to console himself with a Prime of Tess. This leads the audience to the core question of the play, how much of our humanity is our memories and how do we ultimately go on even when faced with such a painful present reminder of our own mortality.

Director and Prime Productions co-founder Elena Giannetti found a perfect way to heighten the intimate space of the Park Theater thrust stage and thrusts the audience into the living room of Jon and Tess as they navigate the struggles of caring for Marjorie and later confronting their own grief. What is astounding about the production is the immense stamina required on the part of Stearns, Shoals, and Barret Birk. Very few scenes are left unwrought with strained grief, sobbing outburst, or angry confrontations.

When you go see Marjorie Prime, prepare to be drawn into a story unlike any other but one that will be hard not to relate to on a deeply human level.

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