Photo by Adam Bartelt, Special for the Des Moines Register.
In the near future, companionship for the elderly will be outsourced to humanoid automatons, who idealize the memories of those in their care. They know only what has been programmed within them or what they have been told. Ultimately, they tell the aged what those with diminished memories want to hear.
Such is the premise of “Marjorie Prime,” making its Iowa debut at StageWest. A Pulitzer finalist two years ago, the provocative, compassionate play by Jordan Harrison has none of the trappings of science fiction or fantasy. The living room set is suburban contemporary; the musical score evokes the synth-pop 1990s, a sound that is simultaneously nostalgic and still a little futuristic, in a robotic sort of way.
Walter recalls that era as well, with his impeccable grooming, manners and diction. Played to bloodless precision by Kevin Dorff, he could be an extra in a Spandau Ballet video. He has actually been onstage and moving away from the set, back and forth, while the audience has been filing in, though he has been oblivious to the crowd, and the crowd has ignored him.
Then the play begins, the title character shuffles onto the set, and Walter becomes engaged. An accomplished veteran, Joanne Brown embodies Marjorie to a T, a disarmingly subtle performance in a complex role. For twinkly-eyed Marjorie remains sharp-witted and willful, even as her memory fades.
Though Walter is perhaps a half-century younger than she is, she thinks he is her husband, and perhaps he is that as well. Their relationship is plainly a warm and comfortable one, but occasionally he must respond, like Siri, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.”
Marjorie lives with her daughter Tess (Becky Sholtec) and husband Jon (Joe Smith), who provide a little more context, though the play is remarkably light on exposition. It seems that Walter is a Prime, a product marketed by Senior Serenity. He placates and pacifies Marjorie, easing the tensions between mother and daughter that have bristled through their relationship.
Even so, he’s apparently the cause of some tension between Tess and Jon, or perhaps that is simply a symptom of deeper tensions. The relationship between Tess and Marjorie, even in the latter’s Prime-smoothed state, feels more real than the one between Tess and her husband.
This production is the StageWest swan song for director Todd Buchacker, who has served as the company’s Producing Artistic Director since 2014 and is leaving in its reorganization. He deserves plenty of credit for the bold theater that Des Moines might otherwise not have experienced, a series of plays that have challenged audiences to move beyond their comfort zones.
This play is comparatively sweet, though still plenty challenging. (It is sponsored by Iles Funeral Homes and draws an audience older than has often been the case with the company’s cutting-edge fare.) It has a lot to say about memory, about relationships and about what it means to be truly human and truly alive.
Over the course of the 80-minute play, as the title suggests, Marjorie herself transitions into a Prime. In fact, by the end, the three characters who are left to converse are all Primes. They say nothing to disturb each other. They only remember what the others want them to. Without a prompt, they have nothing to say. And when they do resume talking, they repeat what they have said before. When there is no human interaction, living with Primes is like living in an echo chamber.
“Marjorie Prime” by Jordan Harrison
When: Through Sunday, January 22
Where: Kum & Go Theater at the Des Moines Social Club, 9th and Cherry Sts.
Ticket prices: $33, $28 (discounts for seniors and students). 515-309-0251