BWW Review: American Stage's Production of Jordan Harrison's Absorbing, Heartbreaking MARJORIE PRIME
"I was so devastated by the loss of my dear Samantha, after 14 years together, that I just wanted to keep her with me in some way." --Barbra Streisand in an interview with 'Variety,' on why she cloned her dog
Watching American Stage's production of MARJORIE PRIME by Jordan Harrison, I thought of Barbara Streisand and her heartbreak that led to the national news story of her canine cloning. If we could, wouldn't we do it of our own beloved, whether pet or parent, child or soul mate? Even if it's not quite the same, wouldn't we still try it? Wouldn't we like to have at least some aspect of our departed loved ones to keep us company, to enthrall us as they had in life, to remind us that we loved them and that they loved us? Loss is too devastating, too hard, for so many of us; wouldn't we choose to interact with at least some form of our beloved dead if we could?
And that's what MARJORIE PRIME is about...dealing with loss using the furthest extremes possible. In it, people of the future are able to interact with Prime versions of their dead loved ones, creations made of pixels and fed information from their lives. Although it's not as diabolical as The Stepford Wives, which was about men being afraid of independent women and turning them into automaton Fifties housewives, it does carry that same "feel" when the living are dealing with replicas of the people they knew and loved. There's something creepy in all this, but also something very touching.
MARJORIE PRIME is an entertaining, mind-bending, overwhelming, sad and exquisite show. It tells its story efficiently and hauntingly, and two days later, it's still preoccupying my thoughts. And yes, it had me crying, not an easy feat for those who know me. So be warned: Bring your handkerchiefs.
The cast of four is as strong as they come. Leading the way is Janis Stevens as Marjorie. She really has to play two distinct characters--Marjorie and Marjorie Prime--and she valiantly succeeds. Her Marjorie is a woman of eighty-six losing her mind and body, walking slowly and hunched, and trying to figure things out in a constant squint. She speaks with her own dead husband--now "Primed"--and lets him know how scared she is. And then she becomes the other character--Marjorie Prime, a "different" version of her original self--and it's incredible to watch. She doesn't overdo the android-like aspect of the part...she tackles this with heart, warmly "fake" smiling, endearing, and yet "off." Yes, there's an automaton feeling to her, like something out of Disney's Hall of Presidents, but there's also something personable as well. She puts the human in "humanoid." It's astonishing to watch, fascinating, and Stevens constantly jolts the show to life in surprising ways.
Jamie Jones as Marjorie's daughter, Tess, is so real that we feel her struggle. Loss may have hit her hardest, and seeing the effect on her is devastating. There' s more to her part that I won't give away, but it's a beauty of a performance.
Steven Sean Garland will break everyone's heart as Tess' husband, Jon. There is a monologue near the end that is so overwhelmingly emotional in his hands that I can't imagine anyone else performing it. Although I shouldn't say the word "performing," because Garland is so natural onstage, so real and relaxed, that we never really see him "acting." He's always being instead of performing; natural, in the moment, reacting without overdoing it. And some of his moments here are filled with heartbreak, almost unbearably so. His monologue is one of the local theatre moments of the year that I will keep flashing back to. I'll be surprised if anything onstage will be as strong or as powerful for the rest of 2018.
Brock D. Vickers fills out the cast as Marjorie's Primed husband, Walter, and it may throw you for a loop at first, because he initially seems so artificial. And there's a reason for that...he is artificial! And he plays it beautifully, keeping the body still and precise as any "real" A.I. would.
Stephanie Gularte, the show's director as well as Producing Artistic Director of American Stage, once again proves that she is one of the prime directors in our area (or any area). She is able to guide a flawless production--from the top acting to the awe-inspiring tech. She's even responsible for the cool sound design.
Jerid Fox's set, with its atomic age chandelier and complete lack of clutter, is sort of a sanitized, Kubrickian vision of the future. It's amazing. A back wall lights up, thanks to Chris Baldwin's inventive lighting, and we never doubt that we are in the future--far away but not too far. Baldwin's lighting is a standout, with its blips of blue and even a galactic head trip near the end that underlines the show's existential questions.
The play, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, starts off rather slowly, sometimes a bit too slowly, but quickly gains steam and becomes so forceful that we can't help but lean forward. It becomes so riveting that the last half of its 75 minutes seems like a mere eye-blink.
There is a scene at the very end of MARJORIE PRIME with three of the four cast members that is as weird, as oddly touching and as head-scratchingly brilliant as anything you're likely going to see. The show is not for everybody's taste, so if you like simple premises and forced happy, skip-down-the-aisle endings, then go some place else (I'm sure there's a community theatre nearby that will suit your purpose with something frothy and forgettable).
But if you want a smart show that will stick with you, that will stretch your imagination, and that will make you question all the answers, then you need to see this. Actually, if you are reading this review, then you need to see this. MARJORIE PRIME is chilling and hilarious, moving and cold, sad and strangely uplifting, and I can't get it out of my head.
Just make sure to bring your Kleenex.
MARJORIE PRIME plays at American Stage until April 1st. For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY (7529).