By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Pittsburgh’s been a little behind the times regarding the work of writer Jordan Harrison. His plays have begun appearing with increasing frequency at theaters around the country but the only one we’ve seen, Maple & Vine, was presented a few years back at City Theatre.
His biggest “hit,” Marjorie Prime, was a 2015 Pulitzer Prize nominee and turned into a small, but well received film in 2017. So the gang over at Pittsburgh Public Theater decided it was time to re-introduce the city to Harrison with this local premiere of Marjorie Prime.
Marjorie Prime continues through June 30. Pittsburgh Public Theater, Downtown. 412-316-1600. www.ppt.org
It’s a little curio of a play; small and intimate in presentation, quiet almost to the point of being hushed and the sort of work you need to stay focused on intently or else it might evaporate into the ether.
The year is 2062 and we’re in the living room of Tess and Jon. Tess’s mother, Marjorie, is beginning a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. At this point in the future, science has developed lifelike holograms, called “Primes,” which can attend to people stricken with dementia, providing them with stored memories as well as collected new ones to be repeated back.
Marjorie has “Walter Prime,” a pixel facsimile of her late husband … but as he was in the earliest years of their marriage. Jon is happy that his mother-in-law has something bringing her so much contentment; Marjorie enjoys her walks down memory lane with Walter Prime – if fact, she instructs him to zhoosh up the memories so they’ll be even more enjoyable the next time he shares them.
Tess, on the other hand, is brimming over with ambiguity. On some level she’s uncomfortable with technology masquerading as people (in the show, the Primes are played by in-the-flesh actors.) But, because this is a play, the family has dark secrets and Tess has lots of unresolved issues with both Marjorie and her dead-but-sitting-in-the-living-room father.
The play is divided into three acts (really just three short scenes) and it’s in this act the spotlight falls on Jill Tanner as Marjorie and Ben Blazer as Walter Prime. Marjorie has led a complicated, conflicted life and Tanner does an amazing job giving voice to all of it, informed by the frustration and sadness of someone sensing her world slip away. Blazer hits the right note of what we might call affectless affect; he needs to be both Walter and not-Walter at the same time, which he does beautifully.
From here on, the show takes a few twists and turns (none of them what I’d call unforeseen) but I certainly don’t want to give anything away. So let’s say the second act is where Daina Michelle Griffith gets a chance to unfurl her considerable talents as Tess. Griffith effortlessly makes vivid the emotional churning happening just underneath Tess’s numbed exterior, giving us a real sense of aching need for connection. It’s in the third act when Nathan Hinton moves into the dramatic foreground as Jon and has some lovely moments expressing his own loss and grief.
The play’s final images are compelling in their elliptical nature and what Harrison is saying about the future; is humanity so flawed that our only hope is to make ourselves superfluous?
On Michael Schweikardt’s gorgeous set, director Marya Sea Kaminski brings to the production the same slightly frosted, at-a-remove quality as Harrison’s script. Kaminski keeps the evening on a low, slow simmer only now and again allowing something as unyielding as an urgent emotion to bubble up and break the surface.
I can’t really say that I fell madly in love with Marjorie Prime; it’s perhaps a bit too studied and self-aware to really captivate an audience. But I will say that the ending left me surprisingly unsettled, which is – should be – always a goal of effective theater.