Thursday, March 10, 2016

Eerie Home Companion: 'Marjorie Prime' Offers Astute Insights on Artificial Intelligence, Real Relationships -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marjorie Prime
a recent play by Jordan Harrison
directed by Kimberly Senior
Writers Theatre at Books on Vernon, Glencoe, IL
Thru March 13

The highly-regarded Writers Theatre began presenting plays in late 1992 in the back room of a bookstore in Glencoe, Books on Vernon.

In subsequent years, WT would come to present the bulk of its seasons within the Women's Library Club building in the same north shore suburb, yet still regularly utilized the 60-seat bookstore venue as well.

Although a number of well-reviewed shows have piqued my interest ever since I started voluminously attending theater around the turn of the century, and particularly after moving back to my hometown of Skokie from the Western Suburbs in 2007, until Wednesday night I had never attended a performance by Writers Theatre.

Candidly, but with deference to a devoted audience base that seemingly has contentedly filled the seats for years, ticket prices at Writers were considerably higher than I could afford and/or justify, even in comparison to what I pay to attend shows at Steppenwolf, Goodman, Northlight and for Broadway in Chicago productions. In fact, thanks to subscription rates and/or discount opportunities I commonly avail myself of, I've paid less for three shows at the aforementioned and other venues than a single ticket would seemingly have cost at Writers.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow. Some actors
shown were replaced in the performance I saw.
So despite a rave 4-star (out of 4) review by Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune of Marjorie Prime back in late-October--the recent play by Jordan Harrison was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is being made into a movie--I didn't think I would get to it.

But graciously accepting a generous invitation, I did on Wednesday night, in the back room of Books on Vernon, just days before Writers Theatre will move into its beautiful new $28 million Jeanne Gang designed building, on the nearby site of the old Women's Library Club building that was torn down.

The backstory on how Writers Theatre facilitated and raised funds for such a spiffy new home is pretty nifty, and I hope to have the opportunity and ability to attend something there--their upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim's Company definitely intrigues--but I was glad to have the chance to see something at the troupe's original venue, most likely being utilized for the last time (at least by WT).

As most of the entire run has been, the remaining few performances of Marjorie Prime are sold out, so I won't review it in great depth nor recommend it too vociferously, but if you see it being done somewhere else, the novel premise is worth your attention.

In Writers' production, the eternally fantastic Mary Ann Thebus plays an elderly woman named Marjorie whose health and mental faculties are in decline.

But giving her someone to converse with, and prodding reminiscences more selectively cheery than actual reality, is a robot with a human appearance, advanced artificial intelligence, the ability to evolve (somewhat) with the ingestion of detailed recollections and the name Walter, which we eventually realize had been that of Marjorie's late husband.

As artificial Walter (Erik Hellman, who is excellent here as in many roles I've seen in recent years) appears far younger than Marjorie, but recalls that "he" had proposed to her at a screening of 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding, it took me awhile to grasp that the automaton is her ersatz husband (in a younger form) and deduce that the action in the play is taking place around 2053. (A later mention of Marjorie's birth year, age and a reference to the obsolescence of ZZ Top also helped establish the future setting, which isn't specified in the program.)

I don't think knowing this spoils anything, and it may well have been helpful for me to have the wherewithal going in, but I'll avoid chronicling further twists involving Marjorie, her daughter Tess (understudy Stacy Stoltz adroitly stepping in for the always excellent Kate Fry), son-in-law Jon (another fine understudy, John Henry Roberts), unseen kin and others, including additional lifelike computers. 

Fitting well into the intimate back room of Books on Vernon, Marjorie Prime doesn't feel so much like science fiction as simply an inventive way to address substantive issues, including aging, dementia, dying, parent/child relationships over time, family life, happy & sad recollections, psychological hardships, suitors of yore, suicide, marriage, loss and yes, techno creep (and/or creepy technology).

At just 80 minutes, the one-act moves well under the direction of Kimberly Senior, who has helmed several dramas I've greatly enjoyed. 

While clearly part of the point, the employ of non-human characters brought a sense of emotional aloofness that didn't allow me to love Marjorie Prime as much as Chris Jones seemed to--I also found handwritten note-taking and letter writing to be odd facets of such a futuristic play--it is undoubtedly a shrewd, inventive, incisive and thought-provoking piece of theater by a talented young writer.

And clearly a fine introduction to Writers Theatre before it begins its exciting new chapter.

No comments: