A Trip Down (Whose) Memory Lane Enthralling Segal Centre Stalwarts and Hooked Newcomers Alike

Aging and mortality are two interconnected phenomena that either fascinate or terrify the majority of us in the West. In some cases, it can evoke both – separately OR together. Some choose to cope with it by putting it out of their minds for as long as factually possible. Some may elect to tackle the touchy topic with grace and dignity. And some may even deny that it will be an issue for him or herself for the (long-term) foreseeable future. But no approach or coping mechanism replicates how, in the world (and rich prognosticative imagination) of Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Jordan Harrison, people will be coping with it in the year 2062.

By then, technology and human emotion will be inextricably fused in an artificially intelligent, yet technically – if not emotionally – wondrous, way to occupationally care for the aged and the cognitively infirm. However, Marjorie Prime navigates the uncertain folds, ebbs, and flows – essentially, the grey areas in between that render the otherwise transparent rather opaque with breathtaking nuance in a form rarely seen or absorbed in plain, old-fashioned sensory input modality. The Segal Centre has proudly interpreted this groundbreaking stage production to offer Montreal theatergoers the opportunity to laugh, cry, be involuntarily mesmerized, and glue themselves to watching the every move of the gifted actors guiding them through the journey.

Lisa Rubin adds another notch to her already impressive directorial belt, taking a hot (it was only unleashed with critical acclaim to the public a scant few years ago) theatrical property and transplanting it due North to let Montreal audiences in on a gripping narrative that is as timely in 2018 as it will be in 2062.

Clare Coulter, the veteran – and legendary – Canadian theatre icon, steps into the role of 85 year-old retired violinist Marjorie with zest, vigor and a treasure chest of her life’s peaks and valleys that shape her essence in the twilight of her existence’s final act. The catch is, Marjorie’s total recall, so to speak, is becoming increasingly shaky; afflicted with dementia, the personal pain of the past shares cortex space with the uncertainty of the future. And in the future, the collective “we” have found new ways to offer companionship to the lonely and the slipping. Marjorie is kept company by a true-to-life hologram of her late husband Walter, who had in reality passed on fifteen years earlier. Even more remarkable, the hologram was not made in the image of Walter as he took his last breaths, but rather the man who courted her and won her heart decades earlier – young, charming, vibrant and in love with his soul mate.

Interestingly enough, Walter’s memory isn’t necessarily brimming with pinpoint accuracy himself (itself?), as other than visually, he’s essentially a blank slate created by a corporation who manufactures the 2062 equivalent of a full-service, sentient inflatable companion who in our day and age, can merely, if cleverly disguised, perhaps earn you a spot in the carpool lane on the expressway. The aesthetics are flawless, though; this “Prime,” how the recognizable being is referred to by its manufacturers, is the spitting image of Walter. His memory banks are another story altogether. It has to be filled by those (or in this case, by someone) who knew him, and the programming allows for more information to be continually added.

Eloi ArchamBaudoin plays the mechanical faux-mannequin with inviting tenderness and such superb subtlety so as not to obviously betray the illusion that he is who he purports to be. To reveal himself as machine rather than man would short circuit the operation in rather short order.

Enter Tess, Marjorie’s tense daughter, who wants nothing to do with the facsimile of her father as he appeared at his zenith. But she is powerless but to observe as Marjorie and Walter tell each other stories, hoping her mother’s final years will allow her some contentment and inner peace. Ellen David brings her trademark acting gifts into the crescendo and decrescendo of cascading emotions that is Tess, proverbially smacked in the face by closeted family skeletons and being given a ringside seat as she watches her mother deteriorate. Tess had no significant interest, to say the least, in being the one to fill Walter Prime’s memory banks with the lush stories of his journey through life. The task went to her loyal and well-meaning husband, Jon. It’s not completely evident at the outset, not until the tale’s twists offered up to the observers in the denouement, how key a character Jon really is, the irony perhaps not lost that he came into the family significantly later than the others. Multitalented Tyrone Benskin, with almost three decades of Canadian theatre, film, television and music under his belt, takes on the role of Jon with the good-hearted aplomb that it merits, but much like Walter isn’t who he is – biologically speaking – Jon’s inner constitution bubbles up to the surface in different form as time goes on.

It is not exclusively the brilliant performances of the four powerhouse actors that will leave one speechless. The tone is so expertly set with the set, costume, and lighting design – gifted to us by the efforts and talents of John C. Dinning, Louise Bourret, and Tim Rodrigues, respectively – and is punctuated by the beyond moving score Christian Thomas has musically created. The music, crafted to undoubtedly accentuate Marjorie’s career in the classical auditory arts, is almost indispensable to the story. Dinning’s set design is essential to the storytelling as well, the futuristic yet homey setting the perfect backdrop for this “Day in the Life of …” tour de force. Bourret expertly assists visually with illustrating the contrast between characters, dressing up the only artificial life form in disparate fashion – no pun intended – from the characters that can actually experience joy, sadness, and pain. Rodrigues helps show through just slightly moody and eerie lighting that we’re perhaps dealing with a family closer to Addams than Brady, an understatement by tale’s end.

The use of artificial intelligence in sentient life is a hot button topic du jour, to be sure, as aside from the technological considerations in pulling it off in a meaningful and effective way, there are a myriad of moral and ethical issues, we as a society driven by the concept of progress, will have to tackle. Thanks to Harrison, Rubin, and the superlative Segal Centre cast and crew involved in this production, we have more than enough food for thought to launch the discussion.

Marjorie Prime is definitely a tale for our times, with the swelling Baby Boomer population having experienced or currently experiencing the “societal sandwich” of having their own children to rear while beginning to care for their aging parents. Take a look at what options may exist in the not-too-far-flung future, and then proceed with caution. Prime encompasses what beauty and ugliness might await us down the road in stunning and compelling fashion.

Marjorie Prime runs through March 18th. Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944

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