‘Marjorie Prime’ an incredibly sensitive meditation on aging and grief

Dreamwell Theatre Presents: Marjorie Prime

Public Space One — through Sept. 29

Michele Payne Hinz as Marjorie; Chuck Dufano as Jon. — photo by Heather Johnson

I was 21 when my mom died. She had been sick for a long time, so “her suffering was over,” she was “in a better place,” et cetera, et cetera. There were plenty of platitudes to be passed around, but all I knew was that if I could just talk to her one more time, some invisible weight would be lifted. That feeling that never quite leaves you.

So, what if you could?

This is the world that Marjorie Prime drops us into. The 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist play, written by Jordan Harrison, opens Dreamwell Theatre’s 21st season. The sci-fi drama, set in 2050, posits the existence of Primes: holographic projections of deceased loved ones that can be programmed with memories, personalities and mannerisms. They are used to help process grief and to help patients with dementia hold on to their own memories.

Marjorie Prime begins with Marjorie (Michele Payne Hinz), an 85-year-old woman exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s, adjusting to life after being moved out of her home and to the fact that she can no longer care of herself. She has a Prime of her husband, Walter (Luke Brown), that she is clearly very attached to. Her daughter, Tess (Valerie Davine), and Tess’ husband, Jon (Chuck Dufano), manage Marjorie’s situation with varying degrees of grace.

The rub of science fiction is that it requires quite a bit of world building to be comprehensible to the audience. This can be especially difficult on stage. The script is not very subtle about this (a daughter who is a technoskeptic allows for some ham-fisted lines about how things work), but director Jen Brown guides her actors into a subtlety that nicely highlights the universals of personality, humanity and family life without dwelling too long on the technicalities of 2050.

Dreamwell Theatre’s production of ‘Marjorie Prime’ runs through Sept. 29. — photo by Heather Johnson

Davine and Dufano, though they struggled a bit with a lack of chemistry in early scenes, grow into an appropriately rough intimacy, as Tess struggles through her own issues. Dufano does an excellent job of making Jon, who has very little agency in the story, into more than just an ancillary plot device. He is sentimental and self-assured, and his steadfastness makes his breakdown at the end all the more wrenching (although perhaps underplayed). Davine manages to pull off the feat of portraying a character who is clearly distracted without seeming distracted herself. Her scene work is incredibly good towards the end of the play, when she portrays Tess Prime.

Hinz is simply resplendent. Her Marjorie is heartbreaking; she embodies fear and anger and humor in equal parts. And her physical work is excellent. Her performances as the ailing, elderly Marjorie and then as Marjorie Prime were distinct and clear. She is a lot of fun to watch.

Jen Brown did an amazing job at guiding her actors, and through them the audience, in explorations of humanity that cover some challenging ground (theatergoers should be aware that this play deals — gracefully but truthfully — with suicide; some audience members may find certain conversations trauma-evoking). This is nowhere more evident than with Luke Brown’s portrayal of Walter Prime. As the only character that is a Prime throughout the piece, he navigates the AI’s emerging consciousness deftly.

The set design (uncredited) is sparse — a necessity often with Dreamwell shows in the small-but-mighty Public Space One theater. But what little is there is evocative. The actors struggle at times with some of the few props that are used; a coffee cup is obviously, distractingly empty, for example. But others are wielded to great effect, such as Jon’s notebook. Rachael Lindhart’s costume design deserves special mention; Tess’ outfits in particular evoke a future without being “futuristic,” and the costumes for the Primes are particularly well-considered.

The opening night performance had a talkback afterward with the actors and social worker Gretchen Schmuch, a specialist in dementia with the University of Iowa Family Medicine Geriatric division. She returns for the talkback after the show on Saturday, Sept. 22 (also Dreamwell’s pay-what-you-can night).

Schmuch offered some sobering context (5.7 million Americans, including 64,000 Iowans, live with Alzheimer’s, which is the 5th leading cause of death in Americans over the age of 65), but it was the personal experiences of audience members that really drove home the humanity of the play. It’s a testament to this production and to Dreamwell’s role in the community that they were able to build a safe space for people to speak over just a 90-minute, intermission-less play.

Marjorie Prime runs through Sept. 29 at Public Space One; tickets are $10-13. See it with family. Talk to them after; make memories together. Ultimately, all we are is other people’s memories of us, and that can be beautiful.

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