'Marjorie Prime' at Olney Theatre Center conjures future with hologram helpers

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Would holograms of dead loved ones help us avoid dementia? Intriguing play at Olney Theatre explores the idea.

At 85, Marjorie sometimes forgets to eat, or just doesn't bother — especially since even taking a spoonful of peanut butter means having to confront the type with "the oil slick at the top" of the jar, which her daughter insists on buying.

Marjorie, the central figure in Jordan Harrison's intriguing play "Marjorie Prime," receiving a first-class regional premiere in the Olney Theatre Center's intimate Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, senses the combination of mental and physical slippage that comes with aging. She keeps a box of mementos labeled "People I Want to Remember."

But Marjorie sill has enough of her old fighting spirit, never hesitating to speak her mind ("Honesty — the secret weapon of the elderly," she says). And she still has good company in the form of her late husband, Walter. OK, a hologram of him, but a remarkably responsive substitute.

Welcome to the not-so-distant future.

In this world (assorted clues in the script suggest a date around 2060), things are pretty much as they are today — except that all those promising robotic advances we now hear about have developed way beyond cleaning house, delivering packages and the like.

What you get here are holograms who (I know I should write "that," but they're so darn lifelike) can be programmed with background information to interact with persons facing dementia.

The hologram, called a "Prime," is a full-sized replica of a departed loved one. It can hold conversations that help trigger memories, keeping names, dates and places alive. As Marjorie's son-in-law says, "It's amazing what they can do with a few zillion pixels."

And it's pretty impressive what Harrison can do with this concept in his beautifully written, expertly structured play, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama. (A film version with Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis and Tim Robbins is in the works.)

The science fiction element in this 80-minute piece isn't necessarily the most important, since, at its heart, "Marjorie Prime" is a basic family drama filled with familiar issues, quandaries, regrets, recriminations. All the characters tote around baggage that no hologram could ever unpack fully.

This production, sensitively directed by Olney Theatre Center artist director Jason Loewith, makes the connection all the easier, given the strong caliber of the actors. Misha Kachman's finely detailed set serves the material well.

Kathleen Butler inhabits the role of Marjorie. She can be exceptionally moving with just a slight nuance in her communicative face, a turn of her hand, a tug on the blanket she keeps over her knees.

The actress brings out Marjorie's frustrations as tellingly as her pleasure in remembering the family dogs or the movie she went to with the man who proposed to her afterward ("My Best Friend's Wedding" provides droll material for the dialogue).

Walter (a gently effective Michael Glenn), the hologram Marjorie turns to, is not a senior version of her husband, but one from 50 years earlier, allowing her to connect even more vibrantly to happier days when Beyonce songs were popular.

Well, not entirely happy. A shadow is never that far away. There's a source of guilt and sorrow that flits through the corners in the pristinely maintained home of Marjorie's edgy daughter Tess (a telling Julie-Ann Elliott) and laidback son-in-law Jon (Michael Willis, in a sympathetic performance).

By the play's end, much is learned about everyone, and about Primes — their potential for engaging with people (Tess is startled to find herself seeking "pity from a computer") and with each other, as well as their limitations (it's all in what you upload).

Given how much we already depend on technological devices, and how often we already use them instead of face-to-face communication, "Marjorie Prime" doesn't seem so big a stretch. In deft, eloquent fashion, the play speaks to what makes us human, how we cope with the needling advance of age, the chilling prospect of mortality, and the other perennially prime concern — the need to be loved.

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If you go

"Marjorie Prime" runs through April 10 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy-Spring Road, Olney. Tickets are $38 to $65. Call 301-924-3400, or go to olneytheatre.org.