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Theater Review: "Marjorie Prime"

Dee Maaske & Elaine Rivkin in “Marjorie Prime."
Photo credit:
North Coast Repertory Theatre

The future is here. One thing it has brought us is drones, a “sanitized” way to kill by machine without dirtying human hands.

Another, according to playwright Jordan Harrison’s “Marjorie Prime,” is the use of “Primes” – artificial intelligence programs that look like people who have died, but whose “memories” have been input by humans. These primes can be used as companions for the elderly.  

Dee Maaske plays 85-year-old Marjorie, a dementia victim who lives with 55-year-old daughter Tess (Elaine Rivkin) and her husband Jon (Gregory North).

Marjorie’s “prime” companion is Walter Prime (Steve Froehlich), a 30-something version of her deceased husband, who provides company and amuses Marjorie with favorite stories, such as one about a little family dog named Toni.

And the one about that tennis player who pursued her for years. 

Many of us have observed the way dementia gradually steals the memory until loved ones begin to ask questions like Jon’s: “How much does she have to forget before she’s not your mom anymore?”

Marjorie, clearly once a vital, curious woman whose personality is slipping away, and is not creeped out by Walter’s presence; she’s perfectly willing to carry on a conversation with him. But she’ll break your heart when she tells him, “I don’t have to get better. Just keep me from getting worse.”

Everyone knows someone like Elaine Rivkin’s Tess, a matter-of-fact realist who understands the technology behind Walter Prime, but is still unnerved by both his existence and its implications.

Froehlich’s Walter Prime is a bit unsettling to look at, much less talk to: he stands quietly off to the side, waiting to be spoken to....or to have a memory implanted.

North is convincing as Tess’ husband Jon, trying to support his wife but feeling uneasy and helpless at Marjorie’s continuing decline.

Would programming a robot with memories of a deceased loved one so we can pretend they’re still alive (or at least ease the pain of their absence) improve our lives?

This is for you to ponder.

But let’s face it, it’s a grim process, waiting for the Reaper – or, in this case, waiting to become a Prime yourself. Harrison’s play – a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist – presents a gloomy and unsettling picture of the future.

The details

“Marjorie Prime” plays through February 5, 2017 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (858) 481-1055 or northcoastrep.org