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, playwrightshorizons.org
Production extends through Sunday, January 24