Marjorie Prime is profound and poignant

Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer Prize-nominated sci-fi drama gets a haunting production that will make you question what it means to be human


MARJORIE PRIME by Jordan Harrison (Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth). Runs to February 16. $47.50-$55.50. coalminetheatre.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN


What does it mean to be human? That’s a theme in a lot of great art. But it’s also a literal plot point in Marjorie Prime, Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated sci-fi drama getting a haunting production over at Coal Mine Theatre.

Marjorie (Martha Henry) is an octogenarian who, in the opening scene, is reminiscing with her husband Walter (Gordon Hecht). The twist – no spoiler, because it’s revealed early on – is that this Walter is a robot, named Walter Prime. He looks to be in his 30s (hmm.. his prime?) and is learning information about the real Walter by chatting with Marjorie – as well as Marjorie’s middle-aged daughter, Tess (Sarah Dodd), and Tess’s husband, Jon (Beau Dixon), who have been worried about her since the human Walter’s death 10 years earlier. 

Things are complicated, however. Marjorie’s memory is shaky, especially around an event that happened decades earlier and radically affected her life.

To elaborate would be unfair in a play that, scene by scene, carefully reveals a bit more about its setting, its characters, their pasts and their presents. 

What makes Harrison’s 90-minute play – and director Stewart Arnott’s impeccable production – work so well is how it makes us figure out what’s going on. Even the way an actor steps onto the set – designed with spartan simplicity by Gillian Gallow – tells us something. And Nick Blais’s superb lighting, particularly illuminating a curtained window, helps orient us.

Harrison delightfully mixes the profound (what is memory?) with the seemingly trivial (is Jif better than natural peanut butter?). And in a way, the play comments on the idea of theatre itself. After all, isn’t a play, on a very basic level, actors preprogrammed with dialogue, pretending to be other people?

Ultimately, though, what makes the script so moving is its insights into those things that humans deal with: loneliness, guilt, regret, love. 

When Canadian theatre legend Henry says, early on in the show, “Sometimes I get so tired,” it might provoke tears (I was practically ugly crying) because we feel the character’s emotional weight and history behind it. 

And Dodd, a Stratford regular, delivers some of her best, most lived-in work to date, especially in an explosive, powerful moment in the middle of the play.

Hecht is unnervingly effective as the young Walter with his placid, unlined face it’s chilling to see him look on during the scenes he’s not in, as if he’s gathering more data.

And Dodd and Dixon have a believable couple’s chemistry, full of physical gestures, subtext and little idiosyncrasies. These details themselves make you wonder whether robots would know to recreate them.

They tell us something about these people and their complexities that can’t be reduced to mere pixels. And they’re among the things that audiences will remember long after this deeply moving play has ended. 

@glennsumi

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