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Playwright Jordan Harrison uses sci-fi to explore what makes us us
"This play should come with trigger warnings: moms, suicidal teens, and dead dogs ahead," jokes Jordan Harrison, the Guggenheim Fellowship-winning author of Marjorie Prime, now at Playwrights Horizons. A meditation on memory, mortality, personal identity, and our evolving role as humans in the technological age, the one-act drama focuses on a family whose 85-year-old matriarch, Marjorie (the incandescent Lois Smith), is forgetting the salient details of her own life. To help her stay engaged, her strident daughter, empathetic son-in-law, and hunky husband tell her stories back to her --- only her spouse died long ago. The strapping young man she's chatting with is actually a robotic replica of her beloved Walter in his heyday. He looks and moves just like the original, and since he's been filled with Walter's memories, he could almost pass for the real thing.
Originally mounted last year at LA's Mark Taper Forum and a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Marjorie Prime is set in the mid-21st century. And yet this future feels more or less like our present, which is part of what makes the show so haunting. According to Harrison, Marjorie Prime had two main sources of inspiration: his late grandmother, who suffered from memory loss and needed her family to remind her about her own life, and Brian Christian's book The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive. "Initially, I was interested in the idea of the Turing test, the notion of whether computers are getting better at being human than humans," Harrison says. "Do humans have to improve to stay ahead of the curve? If robots get better, what are the essential qualities that humans have that they don't? That was the intellectual inspiration, and then the personal one grew in the middle of it."
These heady subjects recall trippy Philip K. Dick stories like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, better known as their respective cinematic adaptations Blade Runner and Total Recall. But Harrison is wary of the sci-fi label. "My play focuses on humans," he says. "There aren't a lot of predictions about the 47 years between now and when the play takes place, and that's intentional. I wrote one other play set in the future, Futura, about the extinction of printed matter. As I was developing it, people would ask about what happened to the world in the intervening years. So I would put things in to predict and explain, and the more I put in, the more people were dissatisfied. When I wrote Marjorie Prime, I was trying to give people a more distilled experience, like Caryl Churchill's plays A Number [about human cloning and identity] and Far Away [in which nature is at war]. In Marjorie Prime, you're not spending a lot of time thinking about what the world looks like outside of the room. It's about how these people knock against each other. I would call it emotional sci-fi. So I can roll with a good Blade Runner reference, but I'm not a geek by trade."
That said, Harrison, who also works as a staff writer for Orange Is the New Black, does use a series of clever cultural references to establish the play's timeline. Marjorie's recollections from her distant past are our recent memories --- Beyoncé's "Put a Ring on It," Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates installation in Central Park, and one particularly ridiculous Julia Roberts rom-com --- which drives home the reality that everything that makes us us eventually fades. "Those references were a kind of breakthrough for me in writing the play," Harrison remembers. "I already had the basic structure and plotline, but Marjorie's references were my grandmother's references. When she hummed a song, it was "Meet Me in St. Louis." One night, I couldn't sleep at 3am, which is often when I do my best work, and I realized if it's the future, she should have my references, so I made them contemporaneous with me. Marjorie and I are both born in 1977. At first it's funny to see an old lady referencing Beyoncé. Then, for someone around my age, you realize, 'Oh, that will be me in a blink!'"
There are a number of differences between the LA and NYC productions, including a new director, two new cast members, a set change, and, especially impactful, the size of the theatre: 198 seats versus 750 at the Taper. "It's such a gentle and subtle play, and the entire story line hinges on unsaid things and pregnant pauses," he says. "It's hard to make that legible in a large room."
One element that's remained consistent, however, is Lois Smith, who's portrayed Marjorie since the show's first table read back in 2012. She also recently finished starring in the movie adaptation, written and directed by indie auteur Michael Almereyda. "Lois wrapped the movie at 1am on Tuesday, October 27 and at 10am the same day, she started rehearsals at Playwrights Horizons," says Harrison. "And she was somehow sprightly!" But though Smith has been playing the title character for years, Harrison says they're still making new discoveries about the character. "You might think after all this time we would throw the thing up and say, 'Do your thing Lois!' But it's not like that," he says. "There's a continued pursuit of truth and who Marjorie is. It doesn't feel like we have all the answers, even now."
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Photos by Jeremy Daniel. Top image: Stephen Root, Lois Smith, and Lisa Emery in Marjorie Prime.
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