Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
This appears to be the dilemma for Tess (Julie Eccles) and Jon (Anthony Fusco) in Marjorie Prime, currently playing at Marin Theatre Company, and which is set in the year 2062. Tess's mother Marjorie (Joy Carlin) is slipping into dementia, and to ease her distress (and provide them some caregiving relief) they have obtained a holographic program that is a duplicate of Marjorie's late husband Walter (Tommy Gorrebeeck)as he appeared at age 30 (Marjorie herself is 85). At the top of the show, the two of them are alone in a mid-century modern living room with a framed Frank Lloyd Wright drawing hanging above the fireplace (lovely work by scenic designer Kimie Nishikawa). Their conversation is an example of the phenomenon of "uncanny valley," which, according to Wikipedia "suggests humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit uncanny, or strangely familiar, feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers." It takes a few moments for the realization to kick in that Walter isn't quite human, and Gorrebeeck does an excellent job of being just distant and detached enough to create that uncanny sense of unease, the feeling there's something just not quite right about him.
Unfortunately, there's something just not quite right about Jordan Harrison's play, even if almost everything else about the production is spot on. The performers are marvelous, especially Eccles and Fusco. As Tess, Eccles exhibits a brittle, overstressed anger that she never lets boil over into scenery-chewing. Fusco, as ever, exhibits an easy charm that belies great depth in the characterizations he creates. His Jon is the rational, present voice in a family where everyone else is consumed by emotion or memory. Ken Rus Schmoll keeps the pace moving nicely, but allows his cast to play with the pregnant pauses that elicit much of the sense of unease at the inherent inhumanity of the new Walter.
Harrison's play isn't poorly written. There are some funny moments (as when Beyonce's "Single Ladies" is referenced as an oldie), and some touching and nostalgic moments, as well: a vague reference is made to Christo's art installation in Central Park in 2005, and his characters feel very real and relatable. He deftly mirrors the concept of replacing one being with another (as the deceased Walter has been replaced by the replicant Walter) through the memory of how the family acquired a second black poodle named Toni 2, which replaced their first black poodle Toni. But it fails as drama because the stakes aren't clear enough and the characters lack recognizable goals.
"Science fiction is here," Tess says at one point. "Every day is science fiction." It's a thought that could easily apply to 2018, as well, as we walk around with devices that mirror "Star Trek"'s communicators or wear the equivalent of Dick Tracy's 2-way wrist radio or have our bodies scanned noninvasively but in great detail or sit in cars that can partly drive themselves. It's rich territory for drama, to be sure, but Harrison fails to explore deeply enough the conflict between humanity and technology that would sufficiently lift Marjorie Prime for me to recommend it.
Marjorie Prime, through May 27, 2018, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances at Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30pm, with matinees Saturdays (except May 19) and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $25-$60, and are available at marintheatre.org, or by calling the box office at 415-388-5208.