How on earth does playwright Jordan Harrison pack so much into the 80 or so minutes of his tragicomic “Marjorie Prime”?
On a guess, it has to do with the fact that his nimble play depicts people who are grappling, imperfectly, with lots of Big Questions but do not pretend to have Big Answers. The play has a lot on its mind, but “Marjorie Prime” never feels heavy-handed. It’s most interested in handing the baton back to the audience, so we can figure out what is on our minds. Long story short: The play is outstanding, but I suspect the car rides home are even better.
As the play begins, Marjorie (Candace Barrett Birk) is in the middle phase of a memory disorder but remains quick of wit and strong of opinion. She’s cared for by daughter Tess (Laura Stearns) and son-in-law Jon (Andre Shoals), who are in the middle phase of losing track of themselves because they expend so much energy trying to figure out how best to respond to Marjorie. Do they go along with her lapses (Jon’s tactic) or steer her toward the facts (as with Tess)?
Further complicating matters is Walter (James Rodriguez), Marjorie’s late husband “resurrected” here as a robot with artificial intelligence. As he spends time with the other characters, he gets closer and closer to a human understanding of their motivations.
Here’s the thing, though: How good, really, is our understanding of other humans? Set in 2062, “Marjorie Prime” (which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and became a 2017 movie with Jon Hamm) says our ability to interpret one another won’t improve in the next 43 years.
Harrison uses Marjorie’s cognitive issues as a metaphor for the false histories we all construct from imperfect memories. The three other characters’ differing approaches to Marjorie raise questions about the nature of kindness, the shiftiness of truth, the value of imperfection and the mortal journey we’re all on.
Director Elena Giannetti guides a compassionately acted, lovingly detailed production. The play is emotional but not sentimental, funny but not jokey and profound but not pretentious.
The details range from Marjorie’s physicality (sitting in her favorite chair, she flails her arms as if straining to get out of her own body) to how hairstyles reveal the genetic relationship between generations (Stearns, the Guthrie Theater’s wigmaster, also designed the wigs) to the subtlety with which Rodriguez conveys artificial intelligence. There’s no herky-jerky “I. Am. Prime. What. Do. You. Need?”-style behavior — instead, he comes across as curious, calm and ever so slightly remote.
Despite its futuristic setting and sci-fi trappings, “Marjorie Prime” is an easy play to embrace because Harrison anchors it in fundamental aspects of being a human: The need to be heard. To be understood. To be remembered.