“Why don’t you tell me a little more about myself?”
When I was seven years old, my brother, a deaf child of three, ran off. The entire neighborhood jumped into action as sunset approached. Some local boys jumped on a muddy fourwheeler and began tearing around the neighborhood to find him as Mom cried and talked to police. We searched from yard to yard, through woods and creeks, and toward the highway, with tremendous fear of what his fate may have been.
The sheriff spotted him trying to step into the street. But the family dog, who had followed him the half-mile across the back field, stood in his path, barring him from walking into oncoming traffic. As he stepped to the right, so did she. As he stepped to the left, so did she. That dog probably saved his life that day.
My brother, now twenty-eight years old, has no memory of the event, being so young when it occurred. His memories are distilled from the stories we have told him. But he has been shaped by the mishap, just as he would be if he remembered the experience. It is part of his identity.
So does this count as a memory? He does not recall details from his own perspective, but rather what he has imagined as we have recounted it to him. Does this make the experience any less valuable–less a part of his identity?
Jordan Harrison’s 2015 play Marjorie Prime poses this question: what is the link between memory and identity?
The play, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, opened off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons with Lois Smith as the 86-year-old Marjorie, whose memories are jumbled and fading. Smith reprises the role in the upcoming 2017 film adaptation from director Michael Almereyda.
Though set a few decades in the future, the play turns its attention to the characters’ past as the perplexed–but alert–Marjorie converses with a robotic replica of her deceased husband, Walter. Harrison gradually reveals a network of truths, misconceptions, and outright lies that connects Marjorie, the Prime, and their small family.
They instruct Walter in their history so that he can serve as an external hard drive, reliving the good-old-days with Marjorie as her own memories become less accessible to her.
But what if a memory is too painful to revisit? One could simply contaminate the input given to the robot, in order to receive a more pleasant output. This feedback loop picks up inconsistencies in the reporting of family history and repeats them ad infinitum. Lies are amplified until the truth because inaudible.
Over the 85 minute show, some of Harrison’s dialogue proved redundant, as two characters talk in circles, revisiting old conversations with nothing new to say. I correctly predicted the play’s ending before the halfway mark, but most of the plot’s revelations packed enough punch to sustain my engagement.
Manbites Dog Theater regular Marcia Edmundson plays Marjorie with sincerity and humor, favoring the subtle doubts associated with memory loss over the irritability and panic of dementia. Lenore Field, self-aware at first, finds solid emotional ground as Marjorie’s aggrieved daughter Tess. She finds dimension within a thinly written character.
As Tess’s husband Jon, Michael Brocki appears nonchalant, but eventually opens a stockpile of raw anguish. In his first few moments on stage, I worried that Derrick Ivey was about to give a lackluster performance–his delivery awkward and forced. I soon realized, however, that it was the character’s awkwardness, not Ivey’s, that was affecting me–proof positive of a well-developed characterization.
Scenic designer Sonya Leigh Drum frames props within suspended compartments–a literal museum of family memories–while her achromatic set pieces suggest the the fading away of life’s color. Transparent chairs suggest that there is no chair, but rather the memory of a chair.
The sensation of a dematerializing world is enhanced by Andrew Parks’s shadowy lighting and echoes of Vivaldi (featuring violinist Olivia Branscum) mixed by Joseph Amodei, who employed projections that were often supportive, but occasionally dispensable. Derrick Ivey’s costumes made a clear, but not overstated, distinction between warm-blooded humans and cold, artificial Primes.
While Manbites Dog does not always present a flawless product, director Jeff Storer continues to choose unfamiliar and exciting works for production. Marjorie Prime is yet another example of a play that I am pleased made its regional premiere at Manbites. The play’s lands in the PG-13 zone for its emotional intensity and some profanity.
SECOND OPINION: April 29th Raleigh, NC Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori & Chuck Galle: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/04/jordan-harrisons-marjorie-prime-is-both-entertaining-and-thought-provokingApril 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/.
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is a local actor and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. degree in Special Education from East Carolina University. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can also find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt, on Twitter @dkbritt85, and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.