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Marjorie Prime

By Michall Jeffers

Lois Smith should be declared a National Treasure. Anyone with doubts need only experience her performance in Marjorie Prime at Playwrights Horizons.  But hurry; the run will end soon. Ephemeral memories are at the heart of this reflective play. What do we lose? What do we retain? And at the end of it all, what’s true, and what’s made up? How can it be that members of a family invariably have different recollections of the same relatives and events?

Steven Root and Lois Smith                  photos by Jeremy Daniel

Marjorie is an octogenarian who spends her days talking with a replica of her late husband.  Walter (Noah Bean) is congenial to a fault, neat, and caring. He gently chides Marjorie for her lack of appetite; he knows she’s not eating because there are no dishes.  “I thought you were supposed to provide comfort,” Marjorie counters.  And indeed, that’s Walter’s function. But what exactly is Walter? We’re told he’s made up of a few zillion pixels, but in the not so distant future of this tale, what does that actually mean? Is he a hologram? A robot? An android? We’re never exactly sure. Some sort of fabricated image seems likely. What Walter is not is Marjorie’s deceased husband. He is as she has chosen to remember the real Walter, young, considerate, and able to fill the lonely hours. Primes are, at any rate, artificial beings who only know what they’re told. They don’t think outside the box; they do seem unfailingly cheerful and obedient.

Playwright Jordan Harrison has created a work of great delicacy. In the hands of director Anne Kauffman, Marjorie Prime is a series of vignettes that both illuminate and, at times, confound.  Not only do we have questions about Walter, but also about certain other facts that seem to fly by. Marjorie’s son, Damian, has committed suicide. That much is clear. But wait, did he also kill Toni, the beloved family dog? If so, was it to have company in the life beyond? Marjorie lives in the home of her neurotic daughter, Tess (Lisa Emery). Their dwelling is done in comforting pastel green and white; scenic designer Laura Jellinek has made the rooms so soothing, they are nearly soporific. This speaks volumes about the contrast between Tess’s inner turmoil and the level of serenity in which she and her husband, Jon (Stephen Root), try to wrap around Marjorie.

But more and more, Tess has her doubts. Her role with her mother has switched. Tess must now be the adult, the caretaker. As Marjorie confides to Walter, “Everything gets me in trouble with her.” She doesn’t like the fact that her mom is being pacified. On the other hand, as Jon points out, the more memory she loses, the less she is like the mother Tess has known. Every once in a while, the feisty nature Marjorie once possessed pops up. She has flashes of knowledge which strike those around her as being strange: she informs everyone that “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” was actually by Mozart, but can’t remember her every day routine.

Lisa Emery, Lois Smith and Noah Bean        photos by Jeremy Daniel

The scene changes to one in which Marjorie has passed on, and Marjorie Prime now occupies her chair. This Marjorie is much tidier, and she wears a pretty sweater. She also seems to be sweeter natured. Tess is more unnerved. She’s discovered that her mom has kept Damian’s things hidden for 50 years. Tess confesses to hating Damian for what his suicide has done to the family. Cleaning out someone’s stuff after they’ve died is a lot like uncovering those old memories which might best be kept under wraps.

At 85, Lois Smith is still magnetic; you can’t keep your eyes off her, even when she’s sitting perfectly still with the hint of a smile on her face. She is that rare actor who actually thinks on stage, and the audience can sense that.  She is the heart and soul of the play, which will be turned into a film with Smith as the star. She’s also blessed to be surrounded by a brilliant company. Lisa Emery is superb as the daughter who is fighting her own demons while trying to make everything work well for her mother. Stephen Root couldn’t be better as the husband who loves Tess, but ultimately can’t save her. Noah Bean manages the near impossible task of being robotic while never being wooden; we feel empathy from him, when logically, we know it’s not really there.

Marjorie Prime is a priceless little gem, the kind of work for which Playwrights Horizons is justifiably acclaimed. Even after the audience has left the building, this is a work of art which will long endure in memory.

Playwrights Horizons, 416 42nd St., 212-564-1235,

Through 1/3/16

Production extends through Sunday, January 24