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Marjorie Prime is a family drama that is also a meditation on memory – with a central starring role for an older performer to play a character developing dementia.

Dahlia Katz

  • Title: Marjorie Prime
  • Written by: Jordan Harrison
  • Director: Stewart Arnott
  • Actors: Martha Henry, Sarah Dodd, Beau Dixon, Gordon Hecht
  • Company: Coal Mine Theatre
  • Venue: Coal Mine Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Feb. 23

rating

3 out of 4 stars

Marjorie Prime, now on at the intimate Coal Mine Theatre in a production starring Stratford Festival legend Martha Henry, is a type of play that will be very familiar to regular theatregoers: A family drama that is also a meditation on memory – with a central starring role for an older performer to play a character developing dementia.

To name just a few of the most, well, memorable stage works in this genre seen in Toronto over the past decade: Florian Zeller’s The Father (which was at the Coal Mine last season), François Archambault’s You Will Remember Me and Rosa Laborde’s True (reaching a little further back, John Mighton’s Half Life remains one of the best of all.)

Marjorie Prime, however, is also a type of play that is more rarely seen on stage these days: Science fiction.

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As it begins, Marjorie (Henry), an 85-year-old woman living in a retirement home, is talking with a young man named Walter (Gordon Hecht). He’s a sweet conversationalist and subtle flirt who would be a perfectly charming companion if not for those moments where he apologetically says something that makes him sound like your phone’s virtual assistant: “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.”

Walter is, in fact, a Prime – a robot that has, in this case, been designed to look like Marjorie’s late husband Walter at the age of 30, and which can be programmed, through conversation, to behave more and more like him.

Tess (Sarah Dodd), Marjorie’s daughter, finds the resurrection of her father as a Prime a bit creepy. Her husband Jon (Beau Dixon), however, believes “Walter” is helping Marjorie combat memory loss and that talking to him is much better for her than watching television passively.

But how much of her lost memory does Marjorie really want to recover? And how much does her daughter want her to recover? The central question of the early scenes is whether to let “Walter” know about the suicide of Marjorie’s son Damien, a tragic event that she and Tess have struggled to forget for decades.

There are definitely some amusing elements to American playwright Jordan Harrison’s imagining of the future in Marjorie Prime, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2015 that was turned into a 2017 movie starring Jon Hamm and Geena Davis.

Henry’s Marjorie, for instance, sings bits of a tune from her youth that her children don’t recognize – and the song in question happens to be Beyoncé’s All the Single Ladies.

But playful moments become fewer and farther between as the play progresses. The physical indignities of aging are not ignored when it comes to Marjorie – and, as the play moves forward in time, Tess’s clinical depression becomes a central part of the narrative.

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While Jon tries perhaps a little too hard to be a positive presence (in Dixon’s performance, he is accurately described by Marjorie as “oversolicitous”), the Primes – and a couple more do appear down the line – are the only really cheerful characters on stage, and their cheerfulness is eerie.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about the future depicted in Marjorie Prime is that the stigma of suicide is still present. As is, apparently, the stigma of going to a therapist.

I guess domestic dramas require family trauma to be buried rather than treated. But there is something a little off about this well-worn construction given that Marjorie would be, given her love of Beyoncé, probably an older millennial. That is a demographic not exactly known for keeping these things hidden, but rather for grappling with mental health in public in a sometimes performative manner on social media.

This is one of a number of things about Harrison’s futuristic script that makes it feel, curiously, like its past is our past - such as Marjorie’s physical love letters stored in little boxes (rather than saved texts and DMs) and 20th-century references to "tennis pros” and “suitors” and turns of phrase such as “You’re a fine woman.”

This is definitely dramatic writing where the ideas sparkle more than the dialogue - which, at times, becomes downright trite, as in Jon and Tess’s extended discussion of how much ghee there is in Indian cooking.

But director Stewart Arnott’s production, which I saw in its final preview, is excellent – with solid acting and the high production values you’re always surprised to find in a small storefront theatre such as the Coal Mine. (Gillian Gallow designed the slick set – and the colourful churning lighting is by Nick Blais.)

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And it’s a pleasure to see Henry, up close and personal, weave an impish performance alternatingly hard-edged and vulnerable. She particularly tickles – spoiler warning, though the title essentially spoils this twist – when Marjorie herself is resurrected as a Prime; correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall her ever playing a robot at Stratford.

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