When you first enter Olney Theatre Center’s intimate black-box space you’re struck by the comforting, tony, contemporary home designed by Misha Kachman. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view of the woods, you have neat stonework on the pillars, a nicely waxed wood floor and tastefully appointed kitchenette—all speak to the ease and comfort of the well-to-do. Here sits a pleasant, attractive older woman; a sunny-natured young man stands nearby nattering away pleasantly, to the strains of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Nice; but in the world of theater if there’s one thing that augurs for darkness ahead it’s a sunny, pleasant house and seemingly pleasant people.
Jason Loewith’s direction here is masterful, without a moment or gesture taken for granted…
Jordan Harrison’s taut, finely crafted Marjorie Prime delivers one of the more unnerving, thought-provoking experiences of the season. Because it turns out that Marjorie (the impeccable Kathleen Butler) is in the early stages of dementia and Walter (the deceptively amiable Michael Glenn) turns out to be a robot-facsimile of her husband, crafted specifically to resemble him in his happier, younger days before their lives headed south. He provides pleasant memories and generic, helpful patter to fill her hours, in the vain hope that his odd presence will stave off her inevitable decline.
Marjorie’s new walking, talking ‘app’ soon becomes a major bone of contention between Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Julie-Ann Elliott, in a riveting star turn) and her husband Jon (the quietly compelling Michael Willis). Why? Because the Walter-bot has been programmed only superficially with information fed to him by son-in-law Jon, who prefers to remember his wife’s family in sunnier terms. Tess hints repeatedly at the family’s tragic history, and seems torn between wanting comfort for her mom and revenge. A revenge that only true, unvarnished memories completely out in the open can bring.
Haven’t we all had those moments when we wished we had the power to define others around us? All those conversations we’ve had in our heads, those hypothetical talks when we finally sort out the skeletons in the closet? But then again what would the consequences be, if our family was merely the product of what we wanted them to be, what we chose to remember about them?
This goes well beyond the science-fiction tropes of Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov; Marjorie Prime forces you to confront yourself in unexpected ways, because we’re no longer dealing with futuristic times and fictional creations: we’re dealing with that ‘uncanny valley’ where we can’t tell the difference between the digital and the real.
Then there’s the ultimate question here: what if, after all our misgivings, we embrace this new ‘app’ and welcome it into our homes? As our loved ones depart, how many familial bots do we need in our lives? Harrison moves us gradually but inexorably to a conclusion—no spoilers here—that is both an acting masterpiece and a truly disturbing vision of what’s to come.
Jason Loewith’s direction here is masterful, without a moment or gesture taken for granted, and he gets fine work from his small ensemble. Robert Kaplowitz also deserves special praise: working with the Philadelphia String Quartet, he has re-created the atmosphere of a live performance of Vivaldi’s classic suite, in which you can hear the soloists’ every touch of the bow. This has a special significance for Marjorie, and aids tremendously in bringing you directly into the action.
Running Time: 80 minutes, without intermission.
Marjorie Prime runs through April 10, 2016 at the Olney Theatre Center, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets call 301-924-3400 or click here.