Marjorie Prime

The Olney Theatre center takes on a play that explores memory and the importance of personal histories.

Kathleen Butler and Michael Glenn in Marjorie Prime, directed by Jason Loewith, at Olney Theatre Center.
Kathleen Butler and Michael Glenn in Marjorie Prime, directed by Jason Loewith, at Olney Theatre Center.
(© Nicholas Griner)

You don't really think about the importance of memories until they're no longer available. At least that's the theme of Marjorie Prime, Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama last year. Currently running at Olney Theatre Center, the play, set in the year 2050, introduces us to "primes," holograms of loved ones who have passed away. Primes act as companions and receptacles of memory to help people suffering from dementia, as well as the pain of loss, reminisce about better days.

One such "state of the art-ist" is 85-year-old Marjorie (an extraordinary Kathleen Butler), who passes time each day talking with the hologram of her late husband, Walter (Michael Glenn), in a time when both were full of vigor. Butler expresses a gamut of emotions, from the gleefulness of a teen smitten for the first time, to the sometimes uncomfortable frustration of dealing with dementia, and the sadness that comes with the realization that the glory days are no more.

Throughout the show, Harrison's script drives home the importance of remembering. Yes, Marjorie enjoys seeing the happy times she spent with Walter, but she is forced into seeing the not-so-joyful times as well —and realizes that those events are just as important in transforming who she is as a person. Whether it's Marjorie changing the way her husband proposed, to rewriting history about a prominent family tragedy, the playwright conveys the themes of loss and the sensitivity of memory.

Julie-Ann Elliott plays Tess, Marjorie's frosty daughter and caregiver, whose biting words hit the audience harder than they do her mother, who must be used to her daughter's acerbity. It's often difficult to humanize a character who is so resentful, but Elliott eventually has us understanding the difficulties Tess faces in watching her mom in her current state of mind. And once Tess sees the primes in action — taking advantage of the holograms for an encounter with her dad — her state of mind becomes all too clear. Michael Willis plays Tess' affable and supportive husband, Jon, whose view of the situation allows the audience to better relate to his wife's struggles. Michael Glenn brings charm to the younger version of Walter, dolling out what Marjorie wants to hear and reinventing his stories to suit her wants and needs.

Olney artistic director Jason Loewith takes the helm of the production, navigating cautiously through the emotional minefields that the primes conjure up. After all, it's a powerful story when you realize that at some point in our lives, almost all of us will have to be on one side —if not both — of the Marjorie/Tess relationship. Loewith slowly develops the tension, and through other Primes, creates something of a mystery for the audience to piece together to fully understand the complete story of the family.

Misha Kachman's design is simple but tranquil, with a peaceful living room made mostly of glass that looks out onto treetops. If not for the technology introduced, you might never know it's a home from the future. The same holds true for Ivania Stack's costumes, which seem as at home in 2016 as they are in 2050. Both set and costumes rightly keep the focus on the humans, where it needs to be.

It's rare that a play can simultaneously be futuristic and timeless, but Marjorie Prime manages to capture the essence of both, telling a story that unfortunately too many of us have had to deal with, but doing so in a way that acts as a futuristic escape. But as everyone eventually realizes, regardless of what year you're in, there is no escaping the power of memories. "Science fiction is here," Tess mutters at one point, but that's not always for the better.

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