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Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime Is Both Entertaining and Thought-Provoking

Manbites Dog Theater's production of <em>Marjorie Prime</em> stars Marcia Edmundson as Marjorie and Derrick Ivey as Walter, an artificial intelligence modeled after her late husband (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Manbites Dog Theater’s production of Marjorie Prime stars Marcia Edmundson as Marjorie and Derrick Ivey as Walter, an artificial intelligence modeled after her late husband (photo by Alan Dehmer)

There are several nagging questions that audiences will take away from the new offering at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, Marjorie Prime. First, “How do we know another person?” Implicitly, “How do we know ourselves?” “How do we know when our life is over?” “How do we know our purpose in life?” “How reliable are our memories?” “How do we preserve our loved ones after their death?” Enough?

After viewing this show, you are very likely to drum up a few head thumpers of your own. Playwright Jordan Harrison neatly slips these questions into our minds as we progress through 80 short minutes of Marjorie Prime at Manbites Dog. The play seems to start on a pretty light note, but quickly gels into a fudge-thick symphonic chord.

At the start of the play, an elderly woman converses with a younger man, who it develops is her husband. The nature of the discussion seems to be how well they know each other. As we will learn, that knowledge is limited, which also opens questions about the reliability of memories and also about their various sources. An adult child of the couple and her husband complicate the plot, which is mostly left for the audience to discover; and that discovery process has only just begun. This play is best described as complex but discernible, and is both entertaining and seriously provocative.

Marcia Edmundson and Derrick Ivey star as Marjorie and Walter (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Marcia Edmundson and Derrick Ivey star as Marjorie and Walter (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Director Jeff Storer carefully shapes his performers’ portrayals of complicated characters through unexpected realizations that make us explore our own relationships with our own memories. This play truly unfolds, revealing new sides to each layer it delves into, with Storer carefully opening a Pandora’s box of human puzzles for our inspection.

Marjorie, the 85-year-woman who is struggling with the toll time has taken on her memories, is brought to us in a solid performance by Marcia Edmundson. Edmundson creates a sweet old lady who sparkles with the memories she likes, especially of her lover John Paul, and manages to fade when the unpleasantness of losing a child is brought up, and is oblivious to her daughter’s pain.

Derrick Ivey also delivers a very believable performance as Walter, whose real nature is slowly revealed, opening the discussion that this play engages in, and a view of the subtlety of playwright Jordan Harrison.

Michael Brocki and Marcia Edmundson star as Jon and his mother-in-law Marjorie (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Michael Brocki and Marcia Edmundson star as Jon and his mother-in-law Marjorie (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Marjorie’s daughter, Tess, is played with a dynamic, cold anger and bitterness towards Marjorie by Lenore Field. Field’s portrayal of the absence of sympathy and of her different view of experiences both remember is powerful, and it reminds us that people often rearrange memories to suit themselves. This is not the least of the vagaries of human memory that Harrison is treating here.

Michael Brocki plays the rock of the family, Tess’s husband Jon, mediating between his wife and mother-in-law, perhaps, a good example of the son-in-law many would love to have. Brocki shows a polished sensitivity towards both Marjorie and Tess.

Jon (Michael Brocki) is lost in memories of his late wife Tess (Lenore Field) (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Jon (Michael Brocki) is lost in memories of his late wife Tess (Lenore Field) (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Scenic designer Sonya Leigh Drum has built a simple, but effective set, which represents not so much a nursing home atmosphere, but a cosmic one, such that the simple interchanges between characters become writ large in its context.

Lighting designer Andrew Parks provides clues to the natures of the characters, helping to tell the story of the Primes.

Manbites Dog Theater continues to enhance its reputation as presenters of thought-provoking entertainment. This is one of America’s new plays, workshoped in 2013 and premiered in 2014.

<em>Marjorie Prime</em> stars Derrick Ivey as Walter Prime, a mid-21st century artificial intelligence who seeks to understand the memories of Marjorie Prime, the human whom he assists (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Marjorie Prime stars Derrick Ivey as Walter Prime, a mid-21st century artificial intelligence who seeks to understand the memories of Marjorie Prime, the human whom he assists (photo by Alan Dehmer)

SECOND OPINION: April 28th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article147386929.html; and April 26th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/marjorie-prime/Event?oid=5933868.

Manbites Dog Theater presents MARJORIE PRIME at 8:15 p.m. April 29, 8:15 p.m. May 4-6, 2 p.m. May 7, and 8:15 p.m. May 10-13 at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina 27701. TICKETS: $12 weeknights and $20 Friday-Sunday, except $6 weeknights and $10 weekends for students with ID and a $2 discount for seniors 62+ and active-duty military personnel. BOX OFFICE: 919-682-3343 or https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?actions=4&p=1. SHOW: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/2016-17-season/marjorie-prime/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/152062601994889/. 2016-17 SEASON: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/2016-17-season/. PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/, https://www.facebook.com/manbitestheater, and https://twitter.com/ManbitesTheater. BLOG (The Upstager): http://theupstager.wordpress.com/. DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/about/directions/.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on Amazon.com. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori previously reviewed theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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