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Dee Maaske and Steve Froehlich. (Photos by Aaron Rumley.)

Most science fiction narratives revolve around plots and events that have never occurred, or been imagined, prior to that point in time. Part of the fun of these tales is that storytellers come up with creative and fantastic scenarios. What makes Jordan Harrison’s script for Marjorie Prime intriguing is that the plot feels completely plausible and believable. Director Matthew Wiener presents a touching production of the finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama at the North Coast Repertory Theatre.

Several decades from now, robots called Primes are created to help people suffering from dementia or psychological despair. An elderly woman with a fading memory, Marjorie (Dee Maaske) spends significant time with a machine that has the memories of her late husband, Walter (Steve Froehlich). However, Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Elaine Rivkin) isn’t convinced that the android is healthy for her mom, but her spouse Jon (Gregory North) believes there are benefits to keeping Walter around.

Harrison’s writing requires focus and attention to onstage actions. Audience members who take a restroom break during the one-act play could miss significant information crucial to the tale. Although the events are set in the future, the dialogue isn’t far removed from the present.

There are discussions that involve Artificial Intelligence, but Harrison’s drama focuses more on human behavior. His flesh and blood characters reflect on painful issues that affect a lot of adults.

Maaske does not depict Marjorie as a victim, but as a person who tries to not give into her brain disease. Her humorous intelligence and affection for the past result in lighter material of the evening.

Portraying a long-married couple, Rivkin and North underplay the fact that something is off in Tess and Jon’s marriage. Neither appears hateful or resentful, but their exchanges are full of quiet tension.

Froehlich doesn’t get as much stage time as his co-stars, yet his presence is both engrossing and alarming. While Walter seems compassionate, he never comes across as an actual person.
Certain design elements, like Elisa Benzoni’s costumes, exist in modern times. That being said, Tess and Jon’s living room, brought to life by Matt Novotny’s lighting and Marty Burnett’s set, isn’t very different from the world depicted in the recent big screen thriller, “Ex Machina.”

Melanie Chen’s audio stands out the most as theatregoers are taking their seats. Instrumental covers of music from artists like The Who and Queen play in the background, and signify that these songs are classic music in Marjorie Prime.

Wiener’s biggest task is to keep viewers completely engaged, especially when Harrison throws several curveballs that affect the plot. Since Wiener is responsible for the affecting performances and haunting sequences, he does not turn the night into a cold one.

Gregory North and Elaine Rivkin.

Neither Harrison nor Wiener sugercoat the fact that Marjorie Prime deals with really sad situations. Grief and death are two of the biggest topics right from the opening scene. Marjorie’s relationship with Walter quickly reveals that she is not completely over the loss of her life partner.

Harrison does include witty moments and lines to balance out tragic situations. Humor from the playwright generally works, although there are a couple of times early on where his comic relief gets a little too cutesy. A Beyoncé Knowles joke, for instance, feels appropriate for a broader comedy, as opposed to this dark piece.

Situations become more serious with each passing sequence. An epilogue towards the curtain call starts off on a chilly note and at first seems too clinical to leave an impact. Harrison’s conclusion ends up paying off, because of the significant and stirring final lines at the end.

Intelligent and not afraid to tug at the heartstrings, Marjorie Prime depicts a world that we might be living in very soon. You don’t have to care about sci-fi to appreciate Harrison’s strong vision.

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[box] Show times are Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m, Thursdays at 8:00 p.m, Fridays at 8:00 p.m, Saturdays at 2:00 p.m and 8:00 p.m and Sundays at 2:00 p.m and 7:00 p.m. [/box]

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North Coast Repertory Theatre
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David Dixon

David Dixon

A fan of theatre from a young age, David Dixon began writing reviews while in middle school, for Union Tribune’s Rated G column and sdcnn.com. He was the Entertainment Editor for SDSU’s The Daily Aztec. Currently, he contributes to San Diego Community News Network, a regional reviewer for Talkin’ Broadway, an interviewer for San Diego Theatre Reviews and has won several San Diego Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. David is a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle member, an American Theatre Critics Association member & Regional Theatre Tony Award voter.

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