January 12, 2016
Jordan Harrison exposes several nerves in his superb play Marjorie Prime: memory, identity, familial dynamics, and contentions surrounding care for the elderly. However, this profoundly original production at Playwrights Horizon (PH) leaves us wondering, not fretting, because an 85 year old playing an 85 year old, Lois Smith, manages to reassure us that all those issues are incidental. As PH Artistic Director Tim Sanford writes in his program, Smith is a National Treasure. With just a twist of her head, a lift of an eyebrow, a glint in her eye, Smith as Marjorie convinces us that her secrets are safe; she pulsates with a vibrancy everyone else in the room lacks.
She asks Tess, her daughter, played by Lisa Emery, “What was I like?” without a trace of angst, only curiosity. Tess has the thankless role of being the diplomat and serenity-buster. Despite being fraught with doubts, she stands tall and limp as though stripped of vitality. Through her talks with her doting husband Jon, we learn that the caregiver Walter, played with eery perfection by Noah Bean, is computer programmed to appear as Marjorie’s husband in his prime. We also learn about her brother who killed himself at age thirteen, never to be mentioned again by his mother. Should Walter, they debate, bring up this long-repressed reality?
The director Anne Kaufman casts seeds for thought into the audience with this play, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Drama, with her pacing, spacing, and limpid body language for each character. The final scene shows Tess, Walter, and Marjorie seating at a round table that slowly revolves upstage with a spotlight on a flower centerpiece. As evocative as this seance is, it feels overworked in comparison with the spareness of the production.
The subplot of technological options to extending life and relationships surfaces as an emotional breather and a clever lasso for entrepreneurs in the audience, though the play would provoke us without it. Caregivers could be given a script and trained to arouse the elderly, we need not fabricate robots to do the same. Certainly Harrison makes us consider preparing not only a will, but a guide to what memories you cherish and those you wish to forget.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY - - Deirdre Towers