|Jeff Giberson and Julisa Rowe|
By Tina Arth
While I generally restrict my reviewing to a core set of theaters located either in Washington County or closely tied to the local community, I do occasionally wander out of my geographic and physical comfort zone to see what’s going on in the rest of the vast Metro area theater scene. I had one such adventure last Sunday, when I had the pleasure of seeing Missing Link Theatre Company’s production of playwright Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime at the Headwaters Theatre in NE Portland. The show sent several powerful messages, not least of which is that theater folk in Portland will find a way to carve a performance space anywhere! The Headwaters is an amazing facility – intimate, a bit primitive, way off the beaten track (unless you count railroad tracks), but dedicated to providing an affordable meeting, rehearsal, classroom, and performance venue to a vibrant and diverse arts community always in search of space.
Now – on to the play. I loved it. According to the all-knowing Internets, Marjorie Prime belongs in the science fiction genre, but it definitely did not feel that way to me. Maybe when the play was written in 2014, the technology that frames the show would have been perceived as futuristic, but not today. Instead, what the audience gets is a powerful drama about love and loss and grief and memory and despair – a beautifully scripted and acted show so moving that I found myself in tears on the way home, grateful that I had gone alone so that I could process my reaction in private introspection.
The story begins with an 85 year-old widow, Marjorie, who is in the grip of early-stage dementia. To help her stay engaged with the world, her daughter Tess and son-in-law Jon have provided her with a lifelike robot (a Prime) representing her late-husband, Walter (in his younger years). “Walter” is programmed by hearing stories about himself and his relationships (both from Marjorie herself and from her family), so the reality he represents is a hybrid of fact and fantasy. In particular, painful memories are left out and pleasant ones enhanced and even fictionalized. As the family history is explored, Tess is forced to recall and confront some frightening truths about her own life, and the hard truths of mortality. The actors provide a gripping unbroken 90 minutes of watching the onion of memory peeled away that forces the audience to contemplate our own pasts and futures.
In his performance as Walter, Dan Fitz weaves a graceful path between human and automaton – very kind and naïve, but without the creepiness sometimes found in humans playing machines. He sets the tone for subsequent Primes (it’s not really a spoiler to say that he’s not, ultimately the only Prime in the house). Lani Jo Leigh is a heartbreaking Marjorie, and she gives her character a fine mix of optimism, confusion, and despair. When Marjorie is seen as a Prime, the transformation calls for subtlety but must still be unmistakable, and Leigh negotiates this path masterfully.
Julisa Rowe delivers a tense, troubled “Tess” whose difficult relationship with her mother in the present telegraphs the hidden pain in their past. Like Leigh, Rowe eventually appears altered to Prime form; having seen the transformation once, the audience needs only a nudge to follow along with the shift, and Rowe captures just the right physical and emotional affect.
Ultimately, the show belongs to the outsider, Jeff Giberson’s “Jon.” He is written as the most sympathetic character, and Giberson simply nails it. As a son-in-law he is a step removed from the drama of Tess and Marjorie’s earlier lives; relieved of the tension inherent in parent-child relationships, he can be thoughtful and loving as he watches and participates in the programming of the Primes. It is through his eyes that we observe the changes in his loved ones, and we feel, with him, the peril of a technology that seems to offer eternal life but is shown to be hollow promise. The honesty and pain in his final scene are so powerful that we are simultaneously drawn into his world and compelled to confront new truths within our own.
Eve Bradford’s set design is simple and stark, a nice reflection of the cold world in which the characters find themselves. Costumes for Tess and Marjorie are carefully chosen to reflect their changes – nothing too dramatic, but just enough to mirror the requirements of the script.
Director Donovan James has done a fine job with a complicated story, and the end result is a show that speaks to people of all ages, in all stages of their lives. If that were not reason enough to trek to the wilds of NE Portland, James’ director’s notes provide another. I have not encountered a more charming, quintessentially Portland expression of a director’s vision for the play and life!
Missing Link Theatre Company’s production of Marjorie Prime is playing at the Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut #9, Portland with performances September 26, 27, 28 at 7:30 pm.