There is so much calm, pleasant conversation in playwright Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer-Prize finalist play Marjorie Prime that it can be easy to miss how intensely emotional the play really is. It takes place in the not-too-distant future, where an 85-year-old woman named Marjorie is slowly succumbing to dementia. As part of an effort to both help her remember her life and perhaps ease her suffering, her son-in-law Jon provides her with a virtual-reality version of her deceased husband, Walter. Marjorie tells him stories of their life together, and the projected man tells them back, but the details change as she slips in and out of her illness, and occasionally she asks him to change details altogether to create a happier story.
This is the first step into a subtle but wrenching 90-minute dive into memory, regret, nostalgia, and grief, a journey with a series of shifts in time and perspective that are made so subtly that it sometimes takes an audience a few minutes into a scene to realize exactly what's happened. Beyond that, the director of the Village Repertory Company's production of Marjorie Prime, Keely Enright, doesn't want to give too much more of the plot away.
"The less the audience knows going in the better," Enright says. "Part of what's cool about the play is the fact that you're kind of confused about deciphering what it is you're looking at. People have to figure out what this is."
Enright is also reluctant to label the play as a work of science-fiction, even though the idea of what the future of artificial intelligence could be is explored a great deal. To her, the appeal of Marjorie Prime was more basic.
"It's the humanity of this piece, which is incredible," she says. "It's really obvious why it was Pulitzer Prize-nominated the more you get into it. It's just so much about what is our humanity and what is the nature of who we are, and it asks how much memory plays into making us who we are? It's about the core of who we are more than just our physical bodies."
It's also a treat, and a challenge, for the four-person cast, which features Samille Basler as Marjorie, Jay Danner as Jon, Edie Allen as the play's most emotionally volatile character, Marjorie's daughter Tess, and John Black as Walter. Again, not to give too many of the details of the plot away, but there are multiple members of the cast who eventually play two roles: The characters, and projected versions of the characters.
"The thing that's fun from an actor's perspective is that they have to play themselves, then different versions of themselves at various stages of learning," she says. "There are a lot of subtleties in play as far as how the actors have to approach the variations of themselves. Almost everyone does have to play a dual role. All of these subtle changes in the characters add up to what this play's about."
Enright went further into the characters during the interview, breaking down their motivations and fears. "Jon is the one who believes that there's room in Marjorie's life for this technology," she says. "But Tess is very against this, for reasons that we find out later in the play, which are totally justified. Jon is the most well-adjusted. He's a fixer. He wants the best for Marjorie and Tess. The character of Walter is very upsetting to Tess. And the role of the audience is to put these relationships together."
"The fun is in learning what is going on," says Enright. "If you come in with all the information, the story is less fun. In the age of Alexa, it's fascinating to conceptualize this as a more sophisticated version of that. It's just enough in the future so that's it's familiar; it feels like it could happen pretty quickly."
Ultimately, Enright hopes that the intrigue of figuring out the plot and the fanciful appeal of a futuristic, but relatable, setting will draw the audience into considering some pretty big questions.
"It begs the question, what do we want to remember?" she says. "At the end of your life, what are the things you hold on to? What are the things you want to hold on to? What do we do as humans when we remember a thing? Is it OK to make alterations? And don't we do that as humans anyway? If you have dementia, or if you're overcome by grief, or if you have a deep longing for something that you remember fondly, what's colored by nostalgia and what's true? These are the question the play asks."