Los Angeles’s esteemed Center Theatre Group (CTG) has a daunting task getting word out about their current, world premiere production of Marjorie Prime without giving away any of its considerable twists and turns. I’ll do my best not to reveal any major spoilers herein, but suffice to say Rod Serling would approve of this engrossing and ingeniously-plotted play by young Orange is the New Black scribe Jordan Harrison.
It starts out like a fairly standard-issue dramedy about an elderly woman in an assisted living facility, Marjorie, who is experiencing the onset of dementia with its attendant memory lapses and potential hallucinations. As the play begins, Marjorie (played by the great character actress Lois Smith) is engaged in conversation with a younger vision of her late husband, Walter (Jeff Ward, fresh from his Broadway debut in Orphans opposite Alec Baldwin). Their affection for one another as they recount past experiences, beloved pets and their two children is palpable. The audience gradually learns that it is also more tangible than initially suspected.
We also gradually discover via subtle bits of information distributed like tantalizing bread crumbs that the play is set in the future, approximately 50 years from now. I expect a fuller understanding and appreciation of Marjorie Prime in this regard, as well as its more philosophical musings, will result from additional viewings. Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Lisa Emery, recently seen on Broadway in Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina) and son-in-law Jon (Frank Wood) visit and add more dimensions to playwright Harrison’s central exploration of mortality, past losses and memory.
Director Les Waters clearly has a handle on the play’s content, including its more Twilight Zone-esque aspects. Although Wood’s performance suffered a glitch or two (one of them possibly the result of or related to a technical/lighting issue) on opening night, the cast is on the whole exceptional. The amazing, 83-year old Smith’s career has spanned 60 years on stage, film (her first movie role was as the barmaid in the 1955, James Dean version of East of Eden) and TV. In the latter medium, she is recognizable to fans of HBO’s recently-concluded True Blood as Sookie’s grandmother, Adele. It is nothing less than a privilege to see her working live and in person on the Mark Taper stage.
Providing the actors fairly minimalist but essential support is Mimi Lien’s set design. Its broad, blank backdrop beckons like a page or canvas waiting to be recorded on while, in the foreground, comfortable furniture in muted color tones supply the requisite nursing home feel. During the play’s final scene, however, the action manages to rise above the play’s previous confines both literally and figuratively.
More than a few of my fellow theatergoers didn’t quite know what to make of Marjorie Prime at the conclusion of its opening night performance. An older gentleman across the aisle stated bluntly “I didn’t understand it,” but “that was interesting” was a more common reaction. I noticed many people discussing it animatedly as I left the theatre, while my companion and I dissected it appreciatively during our drive home.
Marjorie Prime is playing at the Taper in LA now through October 19th. Tickets are available by calling 213-628-2772 or visiting the Center Theatre Group website. Those hungry for more thought-provoking, provocative theatrical fare should not miss it.
Reverend’s Rating: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.