Review of Marjorie Prime, New Haven Theater Company
“We have all the time in the world” is a phrase used by “primes,” synthetic humanoid entities that act as companions and consolations to humans in the, perhaps, not so distant future of Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, playing through Saturday at New Haven Theater Company. In the play, the first prime we meet is a replica of Marjorie’s husband, Walter (Ryan Hendrickson). Marjorie (Margaret Mann) is in her ‘80s and her husband died some time ago, but his replica has a thirtyish appearance that makes him look younger than Tess (Susan Kulp), Marjorie’s only living child, a middle-aged woman married to Jon (Marty Tucker).
The disparate ages might make for the stuff of futuristic comedy, but that’s not what Harrison is going for. Though there is amusement here, it tends to come from a certain deadpan humor in the face of unpleasant truths. Marjorie is losing her memory and most of her interest in life, and she may be sliding toward dementia. Walter is an aid in trying to keep her focused on events in her life, to maintain the fragile sense of identity that memory gives us. In the care facility where Marjorie resides, conversation with Walter is encouraged. Primes store what they are told and can converse about a past they never lived, based solely on memories imported or inputted from others.
Tess finds it all off-putting. Not only that she’s faced with a father-replica younger than herself, but, worse, that Marjorie may be trusting and confiding in Walter Prime more than her own flesh-and-blood family. Much of the play has to do with the effort to find common ground in lived experience; the way, for instance, that Marjorie, when younger and more herself, disapproved of Jon as a husband for Tess, though now she has warmed to him; or the way the family dog and its replacement—Tony and Tony 2—are remembered; or the way that Tess still feels embattled by her view of her mother, even if that woman is no longer fully present.
As the play goes on, there will be additional primes, each a bit more surprising than the last. And there’s a traumatic story about Damien, the son Marjorie and Walter lost, that comes up early and returns late in the play. The way little bits of information circulate is key to the effect here, letting us reflect on how we store up facts about others in our lives, and how we trot out stories of favors and slights we received as though they add up to a life. They don’t, and Tess is finding herself up against it: wondering what any of it matters, what purpose sociability and chatter serve other than as distractions.
Watching her mother’s decline unmoors Tess more and more, and Susan Kulp plays her with grim and pinched features and an irritation that moves toward despair. Her transformation to a selfless serenity, late in the play, without benefit of makeup or costume change, is striking. Margaret Mann gives Marjorie a feisty charm that sets the tone we come to expect from the play, which is why the second act is so unsettling. We see how far a cry a prime is from the being it tries to replicate. In the third act, we might almost begin to believe in primes as substitutes for the troublesome humans we have lost. A factor that comments on the way we tend to sanitize our memories of the deceased.
Jon, played by Marty Tucker with a staunch affability that crumbles effectively in a story of a fateful visit to Madagascar, at one point says that, if he died before her, he would want Tess to find someone new. The possibility of new people never quite intrudes into this somewhat claustrophobic play where characters seem to want only what they’ve already known. Through interaction with humans, the primes strive to become more imbued with their assigned identity. Humans, on the other hand, can only look forward to loss of identity and death. Meant to be consolations and company, primes in Marjorie Prime come to seem an affable memento mori.
As Walter, Ryan Hendrickson has perhaps the toughest role. As the only character we see only as a prime, Hendrickson’s Ryan comes to seem the most “natural,” a way of being unfinished and full of potential that, while true of humans as well, makes the primes seem eternally hopeful beings. In the last scene, aided by significant lighting effects, we might feel that all we are, or were, is fated to end up in an animatronic display case for all time. Is that better or worse than a portrait gallery? Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime lets you make up your own mind about that, and Trevor Williams’ tight production at New Haven Theater Company doesn’t tip its hand, one way or another.
The primes have all the time in the world, to learn facts and to deepen their responses. Our time to determine who we are and achieve it is much more limited, and there’s no way to be sure what will survive, nor even what constitutes who we were in the minds of others. One thing’s for sure: living on as a memory in a mortal being is no way to achieve immortality. The primes may be just what we need as eternal witnesses of trivial existence, as if all our photos of pets and meals and travels and events could exist forever in a searchable database tagged with our individual DNA. Well, why not?
By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Trevor Williams
Cast: Ryan Hendrickson, Susan Kulp, Margaret Mann, Marty Tucker
Stage Manager/Board Op: Stacy Lupo
New Haven Theater Company
February 28-March 2 & March 7-9, 2019