Marjorie Lancaster, the lead character in Jordan Harrison’s “Marjorie Prime,” is an 85-year-old woman who has trouble remembering things. But Kathleen Butler, who’s playing the role in the current production at the Olney Theatre, has resisted the common temptation to play old age as a second childhood. Instead, she portrays this matriarch as a woman with deep knowledge and strong opinions despite her spotty memory. The hard drive is fully loaded, even if the information retrieval system is faulty.
“She’s still viable,” Butler insists. “She’s strong and smart, even though she’s forgetful. It doesn’t mean that she isn’t still Marjorie; she’s just at a different stage in life. I don’t think any stage in your life is a lesser stage. Every minute you’re alive is where you should be at that moment. You have to embrace that moment and find the joy and meaning it has.”
Butler declines to divulge her age; all she will say is that she is “younger than God.” But she does acknowledge feeling comfortable playing a woman in her 80s. And she is an outspoken advocate for theater artists older than 55 — both onstage and backstage. She is a co-founder of the New York theater company Triumvirate Artists, dedicated to mounting productions that will provide jobs for older actors, directors, designers and crew members.
“So many talented professionals out there aren’t getting work,” she says. “Like many professions, theater is ageist. I’ve had gray hair since my 40s, and it’s amazing: You walk into a room for an audition, and when they see gray hair, they gulp. You can hear them thinking, ‘Oh, my God, gray hair. Can she remember her lines?’ There are doubts that older stage designers have kept up with the technology. They have, but there are still doubts. We’ve become a culture of young people; we don’t listen to the voices of experience. It was probably always that way, but you sure notice a lot more when you’re older than 55.”
In the Olney play, Marjorie’s daughter, Tess, and Tess’s husband, Jon, have installed a computer program to help Marjorie remember things. The program projects her dead husband as a holographic image: He looks like Walter and sounds like Walter but knows only what has been programmed into his memory chip, which he supplements with knowledge gleaned from his ongoing conversation with the family.
“I’m relating to Walter Prime as both a computer program and as a person,” Butler says of her performance. “At one point, Marjorie says, ‘Something is a little off with the nose,’ so she’s aware that it’s not the real Walter. But she becomes caught up in what he’s telling her, and so I do, too. I wonder how many people will see this play and say, ‘If I could talk to my husband or brother again, I’d tell him this.’ ”
But both Harrison’s script and Jason Loewith’s direction play down the futuristic, sci-fi aspects of the story and emphasize what the device reveals about family memories. Although Walter proposed to Marjorie when they went to see “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” it would have been so much nicer if they had seen “Casablanca” instead. After a while, they remember it that way. On the other hand, one painful memory is evaded for as long as possible.
“The inaccuracy of memory is something that happens a lot in real life,” Butler says. “Think of Brian Williams. What was that about? Maybe your mother gave you some cheap candy in your Easter basket, but you may think of it as the best chocolate you ever tasted. I don’t think it’s a good thing or a bad thing; I think it’s a human thing.”
Butler is best known for acting in the world premieres of three Edward Albee plays. She had taken 15 years off to raise her kids and returned to work in the late ’80s. In 1987, when she visited Actors’ Equity to check on her pension, she discovered that an open-call audition was in progress for a play opening in Vienna later that year. On the spur of the moment, she ducked in and read a monologue. Against all odds, she got a callback and met Albee, who had written and was directing the show “Marriage Play.” She did the show in Austria and then again in New York in 1993.
“In early 1991,” Butler says, “I got a call from Edward and he said, ‘Are you tall? I remember you were tall.’ I said, ‘Edward, you know I’m tall; you just saw me at Christmas.’ ‘He said, ‘I have a new play called ‘Three Tall Women,’ and I’d like you to be part of it.’ The three women were based on his mother at three ages. Myra Carter played that 91-year-old role and boy, oh boy, was that an amazing performance. I played the middle woman.”
Butler admires Albee for many reasons, not the least of which is his gift for creating indelible, older-female characters, most of them based on women in his life. The character of Claire in “A Delicate Balance,” Butler points out, is based on Albee’s Aunt Sis. The 86-year-old “Grandma” in “The Sandbox” is based on his grandmother. The sculptor Louise Nevelson, a longtime Albee friend, was portrayed by Butler in the world premiere of “Occupant.”
“People think his writing is difficult to learn and difficult to do,” Butler acknowledges. “But for some reason, I have an affinity for it; I just get it. The miracle of his writing is that it just keeps coming at you. I’ve never come off the stage in one of his plays without saying, ‘Oh, that’s what that was about.’ He’s a picturesque writer; he creates pictures with his words. You can see what you’re talking about when you say his words. As an actress, my first job is to honor the playwright. I learn his words; I learn his punctuation and pauses. I know if I follow his road map, the truth will come out.”
By reigniting her career with three Albee premieres, Butler developed a high standard for playwriting. At this stage in her life, she’s no longer willing to spend time on bad plays. Rather than stay home in New York and do mediocre work, she prefers to travel to perform in a really good play, she says. And so she has come to suburban Maryland to do “Marjorie Prime.”
Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. 301-924-3400. olneytheatre.org.
Dates: Through April 10.