Are you more at ease talking into a device or on social media than speaking face to face with a loved one? Are you more frank when the chat is virtual? The sly new play “Marjorie Prime” will get you thinking about that.
Jordan Harrison’s 80-minute drama, a Pulitzer finalist last year, looks cozy as can be in the Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. The appealing, clean-looking set by Misha Kachman features blond wood floors, a small tidy kitchen and a floor-to-ceiling window opening out onto a tranquil woodsy scene. You’d hardly know you were in a frigid future partly populated by robots.
Ah, but they’re so comforting, these mechanically programmed “primes.” They listen, as the handsome 30-year-old named Walter does so very officiously with the 85-year-old Marjorie as the play opens. Together they stroll down memory lane, with Marjorie (Kathleen Butler) sitting on old furniture that’s decidedly 20th century, while Walter (Michael Glenn) lends an ear and recalls happy experiences they’ve shared. Sort of.
But when Walter falters and says, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information,” you begin to understand that he’s cut from the same microchips as the Hal 9000 — only he’s better dressed, in khakis and a tie.
Harrison keeps his focus tight: The springboard is memory loss and mortality, and “Marjorie Prime” is largely a mother-daughter play. Butler is flinty as the demanding Marjorie, whose mind is faltering and who’s always a bit at odds with her middle-aged daughter, Tess. Director Jason Loewith’s casting is savvy here; Butler’s deep voice and cool confidence are mirrored by Julie-Ann Elliott’s sharp intelligence and bitter frustration as the smartly dressed Tess. (The costumes are by Ivania Stack.)
Harrison merely suggests a lot of the old family history that has left certain wounds festering, but we get enough hints — barely — about Tess’s deceased brother and Marjorie’s dead husband, Walter (yes, the robot), to understand why communication is so rough. The timeframe comes at you sideways, too; pay attention and you can piece together how far ahead of us in the 21st century these characters are.
The performances are exacting as the play explores what we say and what we don’t. Tess’s husband, Jon (Michael Willis), is her temperamental opposite: He’s so gentle and patient with his wife and his mother-in-law that at one point he’s referred to as “human morphine.” (Harrison’s dialogue is not packed with those kinds of stylish phrases; it’s conversational and understated.) As Jon buffers Marjorie and Tess in different ways, Willis — a picture of easygoing affability in Jon’s untucked plaid shirts — couldn’t be softer. His performance is mirrored, in a way, by Glenn’s programmed softness as the “prime” Walter.
At times the play seems low-key to a fault, but the very lean plot takes some rewardingly unexpected turns. Apparently a few of designer Colin K. Bills’s atmospheric lights didn’t work during points of Sunday’s opening performance, a minor glitch that would cripple the tech-intensive “1984” now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Cool and controlled as it is, “Marjorie Prime” isn’t envisioning an Orwellian state-controlled dystopia; instead, Harrison explores very old questions of what we talk about when we talk about love. The answer he sees coming is easy to buy into in this well-ordered, thought-provoking show.
Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison. Directed by Jason Loewith. Sound design, Robert Kaplowitz. About 80 minutes. Through April 10 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. Tickets: $38-$65. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.