Saturday, April 27, 2019
Review - Marjorie Prime - Prime Productions - A Better Production Than The Sript Deserves - 3 stars
I should get this out of the way up front. Prime Productions’ presentation of Jordan Harrison’s play Marjorie Prime is a better production than the script deserves. Director Elena Giannetti and her cast of four (which now that I think about it, weirdly feels like a cast of six since a couple of people are doing a very convincing job portraying two different characters with the same name and face) all do great work. Candace Barrett Birk, James Rodriguez, Laura Stearns and Andre Shoals all breathe more humanity and emotion into their characters than the script seems inclined to give them. The design team of Amy B. Kaufman (costumes), Michael P. Kittel (lights), Katie Korpi (sound), and Joseph Stanley (set) all work well together at creating a time not all that far removed from our own - just a few decades in the future. Everything looks just familiar enough and just different enough at the same time, that you buy the situation taking place. After all, the technology already exists today - our bank accounts and imagination just need to catch up. The future’s a lot closer than we think, which is part of Marjorie Prime’s point.
“I just don’t know why we have to keep each other alive for so long”
Prime Productions always puts on an impressive show. I was a big fan of their first outing, Little Wars (though after other theater critics pointed out the historical inaccuracies I was too ill-informed to catch myself, I was a bit chagrined). Their second production, Tira Palmquist’s Two Degrees, was a show I didn’t need to be embarrassed about after the fact - great (accurate) script (both logically and emotionally), and equally great performances and design. Unfortunately, a male playwright lets them down again here with Marjorie Prime - which is unexpected, because Marjorie Prime was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2015. But the more I think about the script, the angrier it makes me. So, if you don’t care about me wrestling with my response to a troublesome text, and all you care about is good acting and a convincing world onstage, skip the rest of the review and go see Marjorie Prime. Prime Productions is a company worth supporting, and they always gather together a talented group of collaborators. This production is no different.
“Does it bother you that she’s talking to a computer, or a computer that’s pretending to be your dad?”
It pains me to lay the troubles of a production at the feet of the playwright, but there’s nowhere else to put the blame with Marjorie Prime. Fascinating idea, shoddy execution. In fact, the first problem is that there’s way too many ideas crammed into less than 90 minutes. Any single plot strand in this script could easily blossom into a full length play with two acts and an intermission. But the playwright doesn’t seem interested in doing any of the emotional homework for his characters. Marjorie Prime skims over the surface of topics like aging, memory, parenting, marriage, death, grieving, and suicide (you know, the little things) and doesn’t fully explore any of them. Most of the time, it feels like the playwright is just jerking the audience around, poking emotional sensitive spots (sometimes hard) and then moving swiftly on with little explanation and no resolution.
“I guess it’s a good thing we don’t have that button. We wouldn’t last very long.”
Marjorie (Candace Barrett Birk) has grown forgetful in her declining years and has moved in with her adult daughter Tess (Laura Stearns) and Tess’ husband Jon (Andre Shoals). The futuristic twist here is that Marjorie’s late husband Walter (James Rodriguez) has been recreated via computer program as a holographic projection to keep her company, and also to help jog her memory. Marjorie realizes that this version of Walter, known as Walter Prime, isn’t literally real. He’s built only of the memories Marjorie, Tess and Jon have given him, and he’s also a much younger version of Walter than Marjorie last saw in his real life. But he’s still comforting company to have around when Tess and Jon aren’t available.
“How much does she have to forget before she’s not your mom anymore?”
Widow Marjorie, a computer version of her late husband Walter, who is also Tess’ dead father. That trio right there has tons of potential to sift through, even without Jon in the mix. But we’ve barely established that scenario when the play is on to the next one.
“You were making a joke about the size of his penis, but also the ring.”
When Marjorie inevitably dies, and Tess needs some help coping with the transition, a Marjorie Prime is created, so Tess can try to work through some of her unresolved issues with her mother. But Marjorie Prime is only as useful as the knowledge you give her. If you’re selective in the memories you feed her, she can’t offer all the comfort you might need.
“You make us kill him all over again.”
I can tell you the exact moment Marjorie Prime lost me. Jon and Tess are having a painful argument that involves a number of unresolved family issues. And Jon up until this point has been just the type of supportive husband one might wish for in difficult times. But he suddenly says to Tess, essentially, your mom’s been dead a year, you can’t grieve forever.
Excuse me? A year? You’re getting impatient with your wife mourning her dead mother at the one year mark? Her father’s already dead. Now her mother is, too. The two people who knew her from before the moment she was born into her adulthood, her marriage, and the birth and raising of her own three children. People mourn short ill-fated relationships longer than a year. Some religious traditions don’t even put in a headstone on the gravesite until a year has passed. Not because mourning is over at that point, but because the grieving process is moving into a new phase.
“You can’t keep sifting through her letters and polishing her tea sets.” Uh, yeah she can, Jon. Yeah, she can. And it’s not even necessarily unhealthy if she does.
Either no one close to the playwright has ever died, or they’re not dealing honestly on the page with the human experience of grief. Either way, the play falls down a hole at this point and never climbs out.
“We both know what ‘no dishes’ means.”
Then it compounds this offense with an attitude toward aging that is truly baffling. It was already bad enough that thus far we only had poor Marjorie and her failing memory, sitting all alone in her room with only a computerized rewrite of her young husband for company, not seeing the point in eating anymore, as our sole representation of what getting older looks like. Then, in the middle of this argument where Tess is being told to just get over her grief already, Tess fires back with the assessment that now, in her mid-fifties, life is essentially over. Obviously, Tess is in pain, still feeling the loss of her mother. Also, Tess is estranged from her own adult daughter, and that clearly hurts her a great deal. But, up until just a few lines ago in the script, she appeared to be married to a caring spouse. Now there's no point in living. It's all downhill from middle age to death.
“She’s made of things we say to her.”
Tess is also haunted by the thought that perhaps she'd been just selfishly trying to keep Marjorie alive long past the point where her mother wanted to go. I get that. If you're dealing with end of life care for a loved one, that doubt constantly nags at you. Nurses regularly need to tell families, trust me, when they want to go, they'll go, there's nothing you can do to stop them. (If you've had friends who committed suicide, you realize that's true at any age.) But once you reach your fifties, your kids are grown and your parents are buried, you're just waiting to die? Seriously? That’s the message this play has for us? Because it doesn’t do anything to debate that assertion - that seems to be part of its thesis.
“For a while it was always Julia Roberts.”
I don't mean to make light of the existential crisis poor Tess is suffering through. But the playwright does. There's no counterargument for Tess' declaration because the playwright has refused to give her a life. We don't really get to see Tess' relationship with her mother, her father, her husband or her children. A litany of exposition and things that have happened offstage are reported to us, but we don't really get to see Tess engage with anyone or live her life. Same goes for any of the other characters, honestly. They might as well all be holographic copies of humans. There's no genuine human interaction here, despite the valiant efforts of the actors involved. Everyone's just hostage to a conceit to which the playwright has committed himself. They have no mind or heart or life of their own. They're barely programmed with enough memories by the playwright for us to buy them as human.
“I can help you, if you let me.”
I'm not going to dwell on the subject of suicide because God knows the playwright doesn't bother to, but I have to say that using something like suicide as little more than a plot device, then doing it more than once, and tossing the death of an animal on the pile for good measure, is cheap, manipulative, and disgusting.
“I’ll be right here, Marjorie. Whenever you need. We have all the time in the world.”
The thing is, Jordan Harrison is not a bad playwright. His biography is a well-earned exercise in name-dropping - pretty much every significant grant, fellowship, regional theater you could name, they're in there. I've seen two other plays he's written which were produced locally by theater companies I respect and admire. The guy knows how to create a theatrical premise. The guy knows how to write a telling line of dialogue. The guy knows the tricks that theater can do and he's adept at using them. Bad playwriting doesn't offend me nearly as much as lazy, careless playwriting does.
“Of course it helps that we want to believe.”
To top it all off, the final scene just made me realize that the rules of how the Primes work are never fully laid out. The scenario of that last conversation is intriguing, but the way it plays out just leaves you with more questions than answers. The more you try to figure out a way it would make sense, the less sense it makes. And it's completely devoid of actual humans, so in the end why should we care? I've got a little bit of the sci fi nerd in me. I want this premise to work, I really do. It's got so much potential. I'm willing to meet it more than halfway. But the writer can't be bothered.
“How nice that I could love somebody.”
Marjorie Prime is grappling with countless big, meaty issues related to life and death and the meaning of both. But it feels like the writer can't sit still long enough with any one situation or relationship in the play in order to explore them adequately. It's an intellectual exercise rather than a fully human, emotional one. And that's frankly a waste of everyone's time. You have live human beings on stage. Let them be human. Let us see ourselves in the characters and their struggles. Let us feel. Don't just tell us how to feel, or push us into feeling something not fully earned, just because you can.
“Now penguins are all that’s left of them.”
I'm sure there are people who would argue with me strenuously about this. Certainly all the folks at Prime Productions found the play worthy of their time and investment, and they are using all the artistic muscle they have at their disposal to make the play work. To reiterate what I mentioned in passing at the beginning, the work by Candace Barrett Birk and Laura Stearns as both the human and Prime versions of Marjorie and Tess in particular is really great stuff. Subtle shadings of difference that, in conjunction with the way their castmates interact with the two different versions of them, are quite impressive. My hat's off to them and Elena Giannetti in her direction of them. They really get the most out of that dual character opportunity. And overall, Marjorie Prime is an admirable effort from a production standpoint. I just wish I could believe, as Prime does, that Marjorie Prime the script was worth the effort. See it for yourself, maybe you'll wonder what I'm getting so worked up about. As with all theater, your mileage may vary. (Marjorie Prime runs through May 19, 2019, on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage at Park Square Theatre)
3 Stars - Good Job
[Marjorie (Candace Barrett Birk) and Walter Prime (James Rodriguez) in Prime Productions' Marjorie Prime, photo by Devon Cox]