Marjorie Prime is pretty prime

publicity photo for Marjorie Prime

Gai Brown (foreground) and Bronwen Smith in Marjorie Prime (Photo by Emily Cooper)

Playwright Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime provides a rewarding and unique theatrical experience. How often do I get to say that?

In the first scene, we meet Marjorie and her husband Walter. She’s 85. He might be 30. She has significant memory loss. If he hears something new, he says, “I’ll remember that fact” and, if he’s stumped by a question, he responds with, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information.” Yes, in these moments, Walter sounds a lot like Siri or Alexa. That’s because he’s a hologram of Marjorie’s long-dead husband, a constellation of pixels that Marjorie’s daughter Tess and her husband Jon have acquired to help keep Marjorie engaged — but engaged with what, exactly?

Marjorie Prime asks questions about the role of memory in identity and relationships. How do we adjust our memories to serve our preferred narratives? What do we leave out? What’s best to leave out? How much of a shared reality do we need to maintain a loving bond? When is it fair and when is it cruel to insist on “facts”?

Tess wants to help Marjorie: she’s kind when her mom has a urinary accident. But she also wants revenge on a mother who, when Tess was a child, seems to have wandered, to some extent, in narcissism. As Walter tells Marjorie: “You don’t always know how to show that you love people.” And, speaking about her mom, Tess explains to Jon, “We didn’t tell one another things. Secret things.” So Tess repeatedly reminds Marjorie that the real Walter is dead.

A crucial family story is repressed — and that has consequences.

Illusions take their toll.

Director Shelby Bushell’s production unfolds at a meditative pace, which suits the iterative, poetic nature of the text. Stories, including one about the family’s little poodle Toni, who went to the beach and got a coatful of sand, repeat, with variations in meaning. The central trope of the illusory Walter also repeats with variations that turn into an examination of mortality. Considering her mom’s fragile corporality and expanding on the themes of experience and memory, Tess says, “By the end, you can’t even have a new moment.”

But, I assure you, none of this is depressing — because the script is so smart and elegantly structured and because this production honours it with subtly naturalistic performances (acting is uncanny in its own way, of course ) and pleasing design.

On rare occasions, Gai Brown indicates reactions rather than simply having them, but she delivers a fundamentally solid, responsive performance. And she makes a rewarding distinction between the two sides of Marjorie. (When you see the production, you’ll understand what I mean.) One is more much more open than the other. The same is also true — in spades — for Bronwen Smith’s work as Tess: without forcing either baseline, she is tetchy in one mode and amiably curious in another.  Playing Walter Prime, as the hologram is known, Carlen Escarraga is appropriately innocent — and waxen. In the middle of this, Tariq Leslie’s Jon is the straight man, and Leslie does a fine job of carrying that emotional weight.

Claire Carolan’s set is a sculptural, skylighted space, beautifully rendered using sheets of blond plywood.

Leslie, who is also the artistic director of Ensemble Theatre, has selected scripts for the company’s two-play summer season — Marjorie Prime and Pass Over — that are both innovative, substantial, poetic works. He deserves our thanks.

MARJORIE PRIME by Jordan Harrison. Directed by Shelby Bushell. An Ensemble Theatre Company production. On Thursday, June 23 at the Waterfront Theatre. Running in rep until July 1. Tickets


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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