Premiere of Pulitzer-finalist play at Olney

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Robert Friedman

In Marjorie Prime, a play that was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, Kathleen Butler (as Marjorie), interacts with a life-like “hologram” of her late husband (played by Michael Glenn) as he was at the age of 30. The futuristic play, a regional premiere, continues at Olney Theatre through April 10.
Photo by Nicholas Griner

Marjorie Prime at the Olney Theater Center is a strange, gripping and ultimately touching play. Is is set in the future, and looks at how we remember the past to keep going in the present.

The play gets underway as Marjorie, an 85-year-old woman nearing dementia, is having a perfectly reasonable conversation with her deceased husband, who is sitting across from her as he appeared at the age of 30. They’re trying to remember the kind of September, October, etc. they shared together.

We are in the future, and hubby Walter is sitting there as a more-or-less living, breathing, three-dimensional hologram. Walter is what is known in the play as a Prime — a computer-generated representation that only “remembers” that which he is primed to recall by Marjorie’s daughter and son-in-law.

Soon, a formerly crotchety Marjorie herself passes into the great unknown, and then is regenerated through “a few zillion pixels” into another Prime, as she sweetly hopes to be told the way she was. A third Prime comes on the scene later.

A familiar future

Among other poignant things, the 80-minute, no intermission dramedy, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist, explores memory — its loss, repression and wishful embellishment — in ways that remind us how important the perceived past is in how we shape our current selves.

Marjorie Prime, written by playwright Jordan Harrison, looks at the age-old human dilemma of people being honest with others in their lives, as well as with themselves.

When Marjorie’s highly neurotic daughter, Tess, is programming the Prime version of her mother, she realizes she is showing more honesty and love to the computerized hologram than she ever showed her real-life mother. Strange, but seemingly true, are the relations between the living and the computer-created.

The conception of the play may be far-out, but the concerns of the characters are immersed in real family relationships: the matrimonial and parental and sibling dramas, sometimes comical, oft-times tragic.

Jason Loewith, who directed the current production, never lets us forget that family is at the core of the human drama. It has been so in the past, the present and, let’s hope, in the future, despite the possible Primes sent to ease the pain.

A prime quartet of actors 

The cast of four is both in and out of this world. Kathleen Butler, a veteran of several off-Broadway productions of Edward Albee plays, is a Marjorie who is by turns decrepit, kvetchy, vain, sweet, decent and innocently enquiring (in her Prime). Just watch her mobile face reacting to the words of the others. That’s acting.

Julie-Ann Elliott, who has performed practically everything with practically every theater group in town, has perhaps the toughest task on stage: turning Marjorie’s constantly annoyed and annoying daughter Tess into a truly caring Prime of a daughter, who touchingly realizes that being loved is far from a small thing.

Tess’s husband Jon, who seems pretty grounded — considering the surroundings — is excellently portrayed by Michael Willis. Notice how well he, too, emotes with his face as well as voice as he tries to keep cool in several flammable husband-wife confrontations.

Walter, Marjorie’s dead husband and the first Prime on the scene, is embodied by Michael Glenn, who is convincingly wide-eyed and wondering as the young, good-guy husband he has been programmed to be.

Scenic designer Misha Kochman has created a sufficiently dowdy setting for the family’s unfuturistic home, while the lighting, which gets snowy and dramatic when the three Primes get together for programmed reminisces, was designed by Colin K. Bills.

Robert Kaplowitz is in charge of sound, and the stage manager is Becky Reed. Ivania Stack provides the contemporary costuming.

 As sci-fi as the premise of Marjorie Prime may seem, the play’s main concerns — memory, relationships, and mortality — are deeply and all too human in the here and now. 

Marjorie Prime runs in its regional premiere through April 10 in Olney Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theater Lab, off Sandy Spring Road in Olney.

Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:45 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:45 p.m. There is also a Wednesday March 30 matinee at 1:45 p.m. Tickets are priced at $38 to $65, with a $5 discount for those age 65 and older.

Post-show discussions will be held March 26 and April 9 after the matinee performances.