Walter has a curious affect, in more ways than one. As he talks with Marjorie, an 85-year-old woman whose mind isn’t what it used to be, he’s gently inquisitive, apparently eager to learn about her and, somewhat paradoxically, about himself as well. As the “Prime” in Jordan Harrison’s stimulating play Marjorie Prime continuing through March 5 at Artists Repertory Theatre, he speaks with an odd mixture of intimacy and detachment, and a patience that seems at first professional, then preternatural. He tells stories in a way that sounds casual yet somehow rote. And when he’s stumped by something, instead of shrugging or saying, “I dunno,” he replies stiffly, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.”
Then too, there’s just something about the way he looks. He’s clean-cut and handsome, yet unremarkably so. That is, until you notice the faint sparkle that shimmers about his plain brown sportcoat and neatly trimmed hair. It’s as though he’s the image of an ideal man, ever-so-slightly pixelated.
And though he looks a half-century younger than Marjorie, he’s not just Walter, he’s her Walter, her late husband Walter. Or at least he’s learning to be.
More precisely, he’s Walter Prime. And as we soon learn in Harrison’s play, which is enjoying a stellar production at Artists Rep, a Prime, in this vision of our future a few decades hence, is a top-of-the-line artificial-intelligence product, the latest thing in memory support for fading seniors and companionship for the bereaved. Marjorie’s skeptical daughter Tess and more supportive son-in-law Jon have taken the advice of a company called Senior Serenity and brought the Prime into their home to help with the charming/cantankerous Marjorie. They all talk to this fabulous machine, telling it about Marjorie and Walter so that it can be like Walter and can remind Marjorie of who she is.
How the use of such technology affects their own emotions and relationships leads to fascinating questions about what in human experience is and isn’t (or should and shouldn’t be) replicable.
Marjorie Prime, a 2015 Pulitzer finalist, is the third in what Harrison calls an unofficial trilogy, along with his plays Futura (workshopped in Portland at the 2009 JAW festival, then produced by Portland Center Stage in 2011) and Maple and Vine (staged at CoHo Theater in 2014), each dealing with technological/societal changes and the attendant human anxieties. As a window into contemporary concerns, it also recalls Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, another of this theater season’s standout productions as presented in October by Third Rail Rep.
It’s tempting to describe Marjorie Prime as a play about memory or about the implications of artificial intelligence, for those are major elements. But it’s also about aging, mortality, loss, grief, and all the tangled threads of family experience that both connect and divide us generationally. Perhaps ultimately and most resonantly, it’s about how all those things factor into human identity, as either psychological experience or philosophical construct.
With all that on the table, the play reflects a tendency in much of Harrison’s work toward the conceptual or abstract. He’s much more effective here, though, at creating characters with relatable hearts and minds, if not fully realized dramatic arcs.
Partly that’s due to the well-drawn domestic setting (compared with the dystopian-thriller approach of Futura or the somewhat stale social satire of Maple and Vine). But huge credit also is due to Adriana Baer’s scrupulous direction and the work of a top-drawer cast.
Vana O’Brien is simply never not worth watching (even with as terrible a script as, say, 2015’s Broomstick), and here she shows us Marjorie’s pride and playfulness, her self-centeredness and just enough of her creeping fear. Linda Alper as Tess and Michael Mendelson as Jon take a little longer here to evoke the sense of a long-married couple than they did in 2014’s magnificent The Quality of Life, but as the conflict between their characters increases they find their rhythm and chemistry. Alper plays caustic and gloomy without losing her innate likability (it helps that she and Harrison’s dialogue both are smart and funny), and Mendelson shows us how Jon, in the role of family peacemaker, bears the burden of his relative emotional strength.
And though it’s a more limited role, Chris Harder’s Walter is crucial. Harder’s a master of stillness and understatement (think back to that quiet yet emotionally staggering performance in 2014’s Intimate Apparel), and he strikes a delicate balance here — semi-sweet, pleasantly plausible, never quite artificial, just a little flat in spots. He’s a sandy-haired anodyne, earnest and inviting, drawing us into this brave new world, where memory is a prime motivator.
Marjorie Prime continues through March 5 on the Alder Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.