Standing ovation at Marjorie Prime, now playing in Toronto
Marjorie Prime, Jordan Harrison’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist now playing at Coal Mine Theatre, asks us about the limits of our interaction with technology, and how we shape and retain our identities in a world where artificial intelligence can be more reliable than our own memories. Sci-fi trappings aside, director Stewart Arnott’s production is also a wonderfully moving and human drama about the fear of aging and obsolescence, and our inability to let go of the past.
Forty years in the future, 85-year-old Marjorie (Martha Henry) is nearing the end of the last stage of life; she’s alive, but in the process of dying. She’s gradually losing pieces of herself, a death by a thousand cuts of lost memories, traumatic and pleasant alike. In the 2060s, there’s a new solution to this loss of self: a Prime (Gordon Hecht), or life-sized AI replica of a loved one. The Prime exists for company and comfort; it absorbs your stories, tells them back to you, and reminds you of who you are. It learns quickly, but only knows what it is told; like many a caregiver, it acts as a mental cheerleader, telling and retelling moments of “remember when.”
The other caregivers in Marjorie’s life, her daughter Tess (Sarah Dodd) and son-in-law, Jon (Beau Dixon), deal with the pressures of putting your life on hold to care for an aging parent, particularly when the relationship was complicated and fraught. Tess, who suffered the brunt of her mother’s distance and disapproval, plays the neurotic heavy with Marjorie; her concern for her mother expresses itself in tension and recriminations, while John treads more lightly and brightly.
Not a lot strictly “happens” onstage in Marjorie Prime, but it’s the play’s ability to create rich, balanced characters, and give them room to interact, that’s so lovely. They tell us detailed, evocative stories, with the implication that the stories now belong to the twin listeners of AI and audience.
The play has a curious structure, and doesn’t follow the trajectory you might think it does at first, gradually shifting the balance between man and machine. It’s not a simple end-of-life story, but one of cyclical loss, renewal, and desperate people grasping at solutions to loneliness.
It asks: how much of who we are as people belongs to our memories? If a machine knows more about you than you can remember, is the machine closer to the real you than you are? Facing the spectre of loss, is our responsibility when sharing our stories to tell the truth, or to ameliorate pain?
As the frail Marjorie, Henry is a powerhouse. She switches from mischievous vitality to confusion and dependence in an instant, giving you flashes of the woman she used to be, and underscoring the feeling of loss. Much of the script’s humour shines through in her delightfully dry delivery, but her fear and pain are also palpable. Her utter misery at a sudden loss of bodily control is heart-wrenching.
As Tess, Dodd’s brash bedside manner contrasts with her naked longing for closure and peace. Dixon’s Jon is wonderfully gentle, caring and optimistic, which makes a rare impassioned outburst all the more compelling.
In general, the AI is played unobtrusively, evoking the calm blankness and impersonal curiosity of machine learning rather than relying on over-the-top robotic movements and mannerisms.
Marjorie’s claustrophobic life is nicely represented in the tiny Coal Mine theatre, with audience members on either side of a faithfully-recreated, modern living room set (Gillian Gallow). Though we’re in 2062 (one year pre-Vulcan First Contact, in another sci-fi franchise), nothing seems aggressively futuristic. This lack of focus on anticipating future design focuses us on the characters and the issues at hand, which don’t seem particularly far away. This isn’t a world of flying cars; it’s our world of Siri and Alexa, taken a few steps further.
Nick Blais’ lighting design, simulating an outside world beyond Marjorie’s blinds, vacillates from a warmer, more natural looking brightness to a colder, whiter light. It feels symbolic of the conflict between humanity and artifice.
If you let it, Marjorie Prime hits hard, and cuts deep. It tackles familiar themes, and yet it feels like one of those rare “new experiences” that a character fears is lost to us as we age. It’s for anyone who has struggled to recapture memory and identity with an aging grandparent or parent, or anyone who feels their own relevancy slipping away. It’s for anyone who has wondered when living ceases to be an action, and merely becomes a brief intermission before death.
It’s my first standing ovation of 2020. Ask Siri to buy you tickets.
- Marjorie Prime plays at Coal Mine Theatre (1454 Danforth Ave.) until February 23, 2020.
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30PM, with Sunday 2:00PM matinees.
- Tickets are $47.50-55.50 and can be purchased online. Rush tickets, when available, are $25 and can be purchased in person 45 minutes before the performance.
- The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Latecomers are not admitted.
Photo of Martha Henry by Dahlia Katz