How do you review a play in which even the first scene’s premise shouldn’t be spoiled? Jordan Harrison’s 2014 “Marjorie Prime” immediately dazzles the mind with speculation on future treatment of memory loss and aging. With Manbites Dog Theater’s equally dazzling staging, it should simply suffice to say, “Go!”
But if you need a little more, what follows reveals just the one of the play’s many intriguing layers and twists.
It opens with 85-year-old Marjorie talking to a man in her assisted-living facility. The conversation indicates he’s her husband, Walter, because she’s reminiscing with him about pets, movies and grandchildren. But something’s not quite right about Walter’s responses. That’s because he’s a robotic replica (or “prime”) of Walter, used to help Marjorie remember her past and be less lonely.
Marjorie’s aware it’s a prime, who learns from her conversations, along with those of her daughter Tess and husband Jon. Marjorie enjoys talking with the prime but it also brings on longings for the real Walter. What Marjorie doesn’t know is that the prime is programmed to avoid references to tragic memories.
Just when you think you know where the play is going, Harrison adds variation after variation during the play’s 80 minutes, fascinating as science fiction but also ultimately moving as an examination of the human condition at all ages.
Marcia Edmundson’s Marjorie astutely indicates the fears and frustrations of memory loss while allowing amusing glimpses of her former feistiness. Derrick Ivey’s Walter expertly balances the prime’s outward reality with too-perfect smiles and glazed-over eyes. Lenore Field makes the initially cold, pushy Tess understandably troubled about competing for her mother’s love and her own inability to give it. Michael Brocki fills Jon with admirable patience as he devotedly endures Tess’s outbursts and anxieties.
Director Jeff Storer draws thoughtful, assured performances from his cast, his staging precise and beautifully imagined. Set designer Sonya Leigh Drum’s small boxes on poles and curtained room of softly lit squares suggest scattered bits of memories. Andrew Parks’ heightened-reality lighting and Joseph Amodei’s dream-like sound and projections round out the production’s otherworldly atmosphere.
There’s so much more unrevealed here that should only be experienced by heeding this review’s initial admonishment, “Go!”
What: “Marjorie Prime”
Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster Street, Durham
When: 8:15 p.m. April 28-29, May 4-6, 10-13; 2 p.m. May 7
Tickets: $20 weekends; $12 Wednesday-Thursday; senior/student/military discounts available.
Info: 919-682-3343 or manbitesdogtheater.org