Marjorie Prime appears like a simple, naturalistic, low-key family drama. It takes place in an ordinary kitchen where Walter (Condon Hecht), a well-dressed man is talking very nicely to Marjorie (the great Martha Henry) an old woman seated in a comfortable chair.
Author Jordan Harrison dispels all these notions systematically and leaves us with an extraordinary play about dementia, memory, family dynamics, death and reincarnation. The latter is a rather special kind. We are in the latter part of the 21st century and a human being can be brought back to “life” after death and communicate with his or her loved ones.
Walter is a man of about thirty who has been dead for about ten years. He has been brought back as he was at age thirty and he is talking with his wife Marjorie who has advanced dementia. The scene may appear realistic, but it is in fact out of this world.
Martha Henry. Photo: Dahlia Katz
The Walter we see is a robot that we realize absorbs whatever information it is given, especially memories, and he reminisces with his wife about “the good old days.” The issue here is that memories of those days may have little to do with what actually happened but reality is irrelevant. We remember whatever our brain has retained and transformed into our current reality.
Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Sarah Dodd) has difficulties with her mother and her relationship with the robot who is just like her father in his youth. Her husband Jon (Beau Dixon) is more tolerant.
I do not wish to give much more information about the plot for fear of spoiling it for you. I will say that it develops organically and there are significant twists. Reality is elusive and we are not entirely sure of where we are. Harrison gives us plenty of clues but most of them become obvious in retrospect.
Martha Henry gives a stellar performance as Marjorie. Her acting is nuanced, understated and superb. Marjorie relives her early days with Walter when they used to go the movies and when he proposed to her. The “memories” whether they are true or not, have a therapeutic value, it seems, because by “remembering” she somehow keeps dementia at bay, at least in part.
Beau Dixon and Sarah Dodd. Photo Dahlia Katz
Beau Dixon’s Jon is a decent man who understands more than his wife the value of keeping “memories” alive. Sarah Dodd gives a superb performance as the troubled Tess. There are memories of life with her parents, her children and her deeply troubled present. The emotional climax of the play and some of the most dramatic scenes are hers.
The small Coal Mine Theatre is turned into a theatre-in-the-middle with seats on each side and the playing area in the centre. The set by designer Gillian Callow consists of a simple kitchen/seating area.
The direction by Stewart Arnott is detailed and impeccable. He manages to maintain realism in an unrealistic play and take us to another world without our suspecting that he is doing it. Marvellous work.
A note of recognition for the Coal Mine Theatre’s unfailing ability to choose outstanding plays, often by unknown authors. “Chief Engineers” Diana Bentley and Ted Dykstra must have the most sensitive and far-reaching noses for high quality drama anywhere. They find it and bring it to the theatrical Mecca of Danforth Avenue in the huge 80-seat Coal Mine Theatre.
Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison opened on January 29 and will run until February 23, 2020 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com
James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press