Jordan Harrison’s “Marjorie Prime” can be called a science-fiction play, and it certainly qualifies as one. But it is also a play about death and the fear of death, about loss and the fear of loss, about memories and the pain memories can cause, and about the future and the uncertainty of what the future holds. It is a play that explores the variety of ways by which we cope with the vicissitudes of life now and by which we may cope in the brave new world that is unfolding right before our eyes.
A terrific production of the play opened last weekend at Capital Stage after the same production had been staged at the American Stage in St. Petersburg, Florida. The production is directed by Stephanie Gularte in her highly anticipated return to Capital Stage, where she was the company’s first Producing Artistic Director for nine years. (She currently holds the same role at American Stage.) Fans of Ms. Gularte will be delighted with what she has done with Mr. Jordan’s great play in this production. The 75-minute, single-act play moves swiftly from scene to scene with only four actors playing six roles, and in the end, it packs a wallop.
How do four actors play six roles? The answer to that question is explained by the title of the play. A Prime is a robot that is, in effect, a reincarnation of the original human being it is named after. Marjorie Prime is one of those robots. But before we meet her robotic entity, she is, as the play begins, the human Marjorie. At 85, she appears to have lost some of her mental capacity and is perhaps even in early senility. In the first scene, she is conversing with a much younger man, whose name is Walter. Walter, we soon learn, is a Prime, created to appear, and in all other ways act, as Marjorie’s husband when they were first married. Walter Prime is programmed to keep Marjorie happy and focused in her end-days, the real Walter having died some ten years earlier.
Walter Prime has been procured for Marjorie by Tess, Marjorie’s daughter, and Jon, Tess’s husband. They are caring for Marjorie as best they can, aided by unseen but mentioned human helpers. Tess and Jon hope, with some trepidation on that point felt by Tess, that Walter Prime is helping Marjorie to cope with what lies ahead for her as she moves inexorably towards her own demise.
What I’ve just related does not merit a spoiler alert. It all becomes apparent in the play’s opening scenes. What follows in the rest of the play (the script is divided into three “Parts”) gives the play its multi-layered complexities and thought-provoking twists. And, in order to avoid having to give real spoiler alerts, I will not go further into the plot. Suffice it to say that the genius in Mr. Harrison’s script is that he covers so much so well in such a small and simple setting. (The play was a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist.)
All of the play’s action takes place in Tess and Jon’s living room and kitchen. (The excellent set design for the production is by Jerid Fox.) The characters enter from and exit into other rooms in the house. One set of doors with reflecting glass opens into another room where, at one point, Tess can be seen on a phone call. The home is shown to be modern, but not unrecognizably futuristic. One sign that we are sometime into the future is a nifty touch system that is built into a wall to access digitized music. (The excellent sound design is credited to Ms. Gularte; lighting is designed by Timothy McNamara, and Gail Russell designed the costumes.)
When the Primes are on stage but not active in a particular scene, they merely stand motionless, as if they were “turned off” or in “sleep mode.” Two of the Primes appear in front of the stage in one scene, just standing motionless as the other characters interact.
Much as the focus of the play appears to be on the Primes and their significance in conveying a message from the playwright, “Marjorie Prime” is much more focused on the human drama that exists in every interpersonal relationship. How do we express our love for one another? How do we show our emotions in the many varied circumstances that exist in any meaningful relationship? Do we show them at all? And how do those fears, which are, to a greater or lesser extent, part of every human’s approach to life, affect our ability to adapt to the vagaries of our individual existences? It’s all heavy stuff, and Mr. Harrison contemplates it in the guise of a futuristic vision that is, by itself, unsettling and mind-bending.
Making it all work are the four actors Ms. Gularte has directed. All are excellent, so mentioning them in the following order is in no way intended to diminish the quality of performance by any of them. Janis Stevens plays Marjorie and the title role. As the 85-year-old “real Marjorie,” she captures the essence of the degraded mental capacity that seems the fate of all of us who live long enough. Her personality is clearly defined, but the overlay of short-term memory loss and lessened mental energy makes it harder, perhaps, to appreciate that personality. She is, in that regard, relatable to anyone who has had a parent or grandparent reach that stage in life. Later, as Marjorie Prime, Ms. Stevens transforms into a mentally healthy version of the same person at the same age. The transformation is remarkable, and Ms. Stevens, who is so great in any role, makes the robotic version of her prior self perfectly recognizable, even with some of the salty wit that the real Marjorie occasionally displayed.
Jamie Jones provides the heart and soul of the play as Tess, and her performance is, for want of a better and more appropriately complimentary word, great. Ms. Jones vividly conveys those very real fears and doubts that Mr. Harrison must want audiences to recognize and relate to. In her scenes with both her mother and husband, Ms. Jones portrays the mix of emotions that lead to the play’s climactic revelations. So much is demanded of Ms. Jones in the human character she plays that when she then plays the Prime version of that character, she makes the transformation seem deceptively simple.
Perhaps the play’s single-most revealing line, summarizing the value of the Primes, is provided to Tess’s husband, Jon. Steven Sean Garland plays Jon as a sympathetic in-law until the tables are flipped on him. Then, it is his turn to deal with the aforementioned fears and realities, and he portrays his character’s transformation subtly but powerfully. Between the performances of Ms. Jones and Mr. Garland, I felt surges of emotion that only the best theatrical performances can evoke.
Rounding out the cast is Brock D. Vickers, who plays the one character who does not transform at all. Mr. Vickers is the steady, calming, helpful Walter Prime we meet at the beginning of the play. He maintains that robotic persona right through the chilling final scene, which takes place many years, perhaps even centuries, later in the same living room. And if that tease isn’t enough to suggest a compelling reason to see this magnificent production, then see it for the acting and the professionalism that is evident in every aspect of the play’s staging by this outstanding company and its original co-founder.
Performances of “Marjorie Prime” continue at Capital Stage (Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm) through June 3. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (capstage.org).