Making memories with “Marjorie Prime”

Lois Smith as Marjorie and Frank Wood as her son-in-law Jon PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ
Lois Smith as Marjorie and Frank Wood as her son-in-law Jon PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

Lois Smith as Marjorie and Frank Wood as her son-in-law Jon
PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

The less said about this play, the better.

No, I’m not slighting Jordan Harrison’s cleverly constructed “Marjorie Prime”; rather, I’m reminding myself to allow each theatergoer the pleasure – in the words of lead actress Lois Smith – “to discover the layers of the story as it unfolds.” And, believe me, this world premiere, now at the Mark Taper Forum, has more layers than your favorite birthday cake.

Smith appears in the title role, and when the lights come up she’s in an assisted living facility, sparingly furnished, and seemingly conversing with a young attentive caregiver (Jeff Ward as Walter).

Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Lisa Emery), and son-in-law, Jon (Frank Wood) appear to be in their mid-50s, and what can be said about the story without letting you-know-what out of the bag is that it examines how we care for, reconcile with (or not), and remember our aging or deceased family members. Turn this around, and it’s also about how we ourselves want to be remembered by our family. It can all boil down to memories real or imagined.

Lisa Emery as Tess and Lois Smith as her mother Marjorie PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

Lisa Emery as Tess and Lois Smith as her mother Marjorie
PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

Because Marjorie and Tess have had a strained relationship (as has Tess with her own daughter), the play can be seen as exploring the disconnect between parent and child. In this case there are further ramifications because Tess had an older brother who led a troubled life.

Now, going back to that opening scene with elderly Marjorie and young Walter, it’s possible to assume as we listen in that Marjorie has alzheimer’s, is suffering from dementia, or is just plain forgetful, and if you want to continue thinking it’s one of these things then be my guest: I’d rather mislead you than give away too much. The conversation, at first, is a bit confusing, but (fast learners that we are, right?) we’re certain that within minutes we’ll have a handle on who’s who, what’s what, and where it’s going.

Lisa Emery as Tess, Frank Wood as her husband Jon, and Lois Smith as Marjorie PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

Lisa Emery as Tess, Frank Wood as her husband Jon, and Lois Smith as Marjorie
PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

Well, sorry, but that handle’s likely to come off when you try and open the door. Harrison’s play actually becomes less clear before it becomes more clear, and there’s a great deal of beauty in that. In many ways, though, “Marjorie Prime” is a very simple work – almost zen-like  in its austerity, starting with the sure hand of director Les Waters and continuing with the clean, crisp set design by Mimi Lien and the lighting by Lap Chi Chu – and it runs only about 75 minutes with no intermission.

And then there are those layers I mentioned, remember? Harrison may have added a few throwaway lines here and there, just to move things along, but – and underline these words – pay close attention to everything that’s being said. Like about ZZ Top, for example. And, if you hear a couple of things twice, such as Walter and later Marjorie saying “I have all the time in the world,” you can be sure they’re saying them for a good reason.

Of course, even a smartly written play will flounder horribly if it lacks a viable cast, but Lois Smith, clearly the centerpiece here, is backed by a fine set of actors who breathe life – and something more – into their lines.

Jeff Ward as Walter and Lois Smith as Marjorie PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

Jeff Ward as Walter and Lois Smith as Marjorie
PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

By the end of the play the astute viewer will have been the recipient of – and one hopes rewarded by – a succession of surprises and revelations. If “Marjorie Prime” was a film instead of a play many of us would remain in our seats and watch it again. Yes, it’s that intriguing. There are some shows that we walk out of and say, Well, that was pleasant; where do you want to eat? There are other shows that we briefly discuss in the car, on the bus, or in the train on the way home. This one’s different, and we’re liable to ponder it a little longer because it takes us someplace we never expected and, chances are, somewhere we’ve never been.

“Marjorie Prime”

Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: Through Oct. 19. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

How much: $25 to $70

Call: (213) 628-2772

Online: CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

 

 

 

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