[Note: The role of Tess is now played by Stacy Stoltz.]
Playwright Jordan Harrison’s work often hinges on what you might call speculative conceits. Maple and Vine looks at a closed-off community that’s an intentional throwback to an idealized 1950s; in The Grown-Up, a magical artifact sends its protagonist hurtling from childhood to old age. Marjorie Prime, which premiered last year in Los Angeles and was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is no different.
It opens 50 or so years into the future, where 85-year-old Marjorie (Mary Ann Thebus), in the throes of dementia and recently moved into an assisted living community by her anxious daughter Tess (Kate Fry) and obsequious son-in-law Jon (Nathan Hosner), has been given a virtual companion. Her “Prime” is a holographic artificial intelligence, given the form of Marjorie’s late husband, Walter (Erik Hellman), as he looked when the couple first met. Learning its “character” from conversing with Marjorie and Jon—the tech-skeptic Tess is more put off—“Walter Prime” aims to become a friendly stand-in for the real thing.
It’s not spoiling too much to say that “Walter” isn’t the only Prime we meet as Harrison’s 80-minute gut-punch of a play progresses, though it only uses the four actors. What’s remarkable about this savvy piece, acted to the hilt by those four cast members in Kimberly Senior’s smartly spare production, is its insight into the vagaries of memory and the navigation of grief. Would you take comfort in being able to talk to an imperfect, artificial but responsive version of a lost spouse or parent, even if it improved over time as your own memory failed? Would it only hurt more if the stand-in showed more kindness than the real thing did? That the aged Marjorie explicitly shares the same year of birth as me surely increased my internalization of these ideas, but Harrison and this Writers Theatre production do an impressive job of keeping this mildly sci-fi concept at a movingly human level.
Writers Theatre at Books on Vernon. By Jordan Harrison. Directed by Kimberly Senior. With Kate Fry, Mary Ann Thebus, Nathan Hosner, Erik Hellman. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.