Jordan Harrison’s 2015 Pulitzer-Prize nominated play that inspired the 2017 film (directed by Michael Almereyda and starring Jon Hamm and Tim Robbins) of the same name has found fertile ground at The Segal Centre for Performing Arts this season.“Marjorie Prime”, a futuristic and forward-thinking piece on artificial intelligence, memory, identity, and mortality, is here spearheaded by Segal Artistic and Executive Director Lisa Rubin in a gripping stage production running in Montreal through March 18th, 2018.
The year is 2062 and 85-year-old Marjorie (Clare Coulter) is in the middle stages of dementia. Keeping her cordial company and cushioning the decline of her mental dexterity for chipper conversation is Walter “Prime” (Eloi ArchamBaudoin), a computerized replica and holographic reincarnation of her late husband in his handsome thirties (there is no actual 3D projecting equipment in the show and the technology goes largely undiscussed, mind you – all is simply taken as read).
“I sound like whoever I talk who,” the impeccably dapper double calculatedly informs us. Indeed, he is but an idealized image and of a meticulously constructed identity, programmed to selectively feed the heavily medicated Marjorie back the best feel-good memories – real or rewritten – of their romantic courtship and her life.
Living with the widowed octogenarian as caretakers are her testy, quarrelsome daughter, Tess (Ellen David), and her solicitous, soft-spoken son-in-law, Jon (Tyrone Benskin). The latter eagerly contributes towards expanding Walter’s functional knowledge and “education” of his background with embellished retellings of family stories. Tess acknowledges the comfort and stimulation the charismatic humanoid provides to her atrophying mother, but she is disquieted by the presence of a facsimile father and remains skeptical of “its” benefits. Tess is jealous, certainly, of Marjorie’s fondness for her pixel-generated companion – a stinging realization given her own difficult relationship with her mother, her estrangement from her unseen daughter, and her burgeoning conflicts with Jon as secrets are unveiled. Time elapses, the losses steadily pile up, and those left behind grieve the departed.
Featuring superior acting under Rubin’s beautifully and consistently focused direction, the “prime” cast is just that. Chief among the production’s bounteous pleasures is seeing Canadian stage legend Coulter, who here returns to the Segal for the fifth time, exquisitely capturing the titular character’s piquancy, precision, and vulnerability in the flesh and blood. ArchamBaudoin is a haunting presence as the glossy automaton Walter, effectively balancing a cold, calibrated artificiality with a studiously calm, charming, and pleasing demeanour. As Tess, David lets us in to the depths and truths of her prickly character’s resentments, fears, and frustrations with emotional exactness; one feels the great undertow of suffering. As for Benskin, it is perhaps Jon that is most affected by the human-to-hologram uprising, and his sympathetic portrayal of a concerned, caring, and well-intended spousal figure lends a quiet gravitas to the piece.
The forward-moving narrative is sublimely underscored and heightened by original music from Christian Thomas, who has here composed classical themes for each personage (Marjorie’s violin-playing past, for example, is finely referenced throughout). John C. Dinning’s striking modernistic set, cleverly lit by Tim Rodrigues and complemented by the beige and blue palette of Louise Bourret’s elegant costume design, evokes a sci-fi strangeness without fully being reduced to sterility. One of the more unexpectedly stirring touches, however, are the scene transitions (handled by Stage Manager Sarah-Marie Langlois and A.S.M. Birdie Gregor), devised to gradually strip the environment of any vestiges of humanity down to an icy void.
Exploring contentious issues of social and personal morality, Marjorie Prime is a poignant play of ideas, and a fundamentally realistic work deftly traversing through the timeless themes of aging, loss, and family. Harrison’s intriguing script reveals itself as accessible and resonant not only among mature audiences, but also to younger generations of theatregoers as we all collectively contend with our ever-increasing dependency of the digital. The human parts are heartwarming. The final scene is chilling. It’s altogether unsettling, alarming, and daunting for the most necessary of reflections and discussions.
The “Prime”, indeed, is a most seductive technology, and one that isn’t a far leap from the virtual reality holography already in use. But, it raises multiple questions of ethics as we attempt to connect the dots: to what degree can artificial intelligence effectively replicate or replace the intricacies of intimate relationships and subtleties of human interactions? Does it matter if something is true or not if it proves to do more good than harm? If we, too, had the opportunity to rebuild the past, what would we choose to forget?
Well, not this production, certainly.
The Segal Centre for Performing Arts presents
When: February 25th to March 18th, 2018
Where: 5170 Chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine, Montreal, QC H3W 1M7
Duration: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Admission: CAD $24.50-$61.00
(student/senior/under 30/industry discounts available)
Box Office: www.segalcentre.org | 514.739.7944