The Capital Stage Company’s newest drama, “Marjorie Prime,” just might be its darkest, most powerful production of the season, and that’s really saying something.
Capital Stage — which launched in 2004 with 200 full-season subscribers and today boasts more than 2,000 — always has thrived on producing cutting-edge material, typically leaning hard on the Four Ds — dark, depressing, dystopian and diabolical. Those loyal subscribers generally know what they are in for when they attend a Cap Stage performance, but for others, these bold, provocative productions can be an acquired taste.
Consider that the company opened its 2017-2018 season with a play about slavery, racism and stereotypes (“An Octoroon”). It followed that up with a production about religious zealotry, drug and sexual abuse (“Luna Gale”). A futuristic tale of a secret retreat where men play out their sick, erotic fantasies involving prepubescent girls (“The Nether”) came next, and then a story of loss and betrayal focused on a father-and-daughter team that sets deadly fires for profit (“The Arsonists”).
With “Marjorie Prime,” Capital Stage goes back to the future again, riding on playwright Jordan Harrison’s compelling script, which examines the themes of mortality, memory, identity and technology. It does so by asking the question of what life would be like several decades from now if families could acquire and program holograms to take the place of loved ones who have passed away.
Harrison’s drama was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015, and was turned into a 2017 movie of the same title starring Geena Davis, Jon Hamm, Tim Robbins and Lois Smith. The story revolves around Marjorie, 85, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Her husband Walter, has passed away, and Marjorie’s daughter Tess and son-in-law Jon have installed a holographic Walter to keep Marjorie company as she lives with them in their upper-middle-class home.
Holographic Walter is a much younger man, a version of her husband in his prime, and he repeatedly feeds Marjorie's life story back to her so she can remember it.
The inherent irony in Harrison’s script is that while society and technology have advanced to the point of developing holograms that can talk and react, apparently no one has yet discovered a cure for Alzheimer’s or a medicine to slow its devastating effects.
The play features several heart-wrenching moments as Marjorie further loses her faculties and becomes confused about whether this Walter really is her Walter. Through the dialogue, a complicated family history is revealed, as Tess complains to Jon that her mother rarely showed her the love and affection she desired.
“Does it bother you that she’s talking to a computer or a computer pretending to be your dad?” Jon asks Tess at one point.
“Am I supposed to not notice she is being nicer to that thing than to me?” Tess responds.
As the play progresses, Tess violates some of the rules of engaging with Alzheimer’s patients, firing off sarcastic remarks and regularly correcting Marjorie’s disintegrating memory instead of simply accepting her mom's reality for what it is.
Before the stage goes dark on this one-act play, at least two characters will pass away — one tragically. Both are replaced by other holograms, known as "primes," that, like Walter, can repeat and build upon whatever information they are fed. The conversations among the primes and others ultimately speak to the mysteries of human identity, and to the limits of what technology can replace.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that “Marjorie Prime” is the strongest reminder this season of Capital Stage’s long-standing commitment to innovative theater. The drama is a homecoming of sorts for the director, Stephanie Gularte, the founding artistic director of Capital Stage who ran the company for 10 years before moving to the American Stage Theatre Company in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“Marjorie Prime” is a first-ever co-production between Capital Stage and American Stage. The companies are sharing resources, artists and actors. St. Petersburg hosted the production from March 7-April 1, before it moved to Sacramento.
Gularte has assembled a talented cast and technical crew, including two veteran Sacramento actors (Janis Stevens as Marjorie and Jamie Jones as Tess) and two newcomers (Brock D. Vickers as Walter and Steven Sean Garland, a UC Davis alumnus making his Capital Stage debut, as Jon).
Jones and Garland display a remarkable chemistry as Tess and Jon. Their tender moments and their arguments consistently ring true. The nasty back-and-forths that Stevens and Jones share as dysfunctional mother and daughter also feel uncomfortably authentic. Vickers is appropriately peculiar but not overly wooden as Walter Prime.
In the end, “Marjorie Prime” draws profound parallels between Alzheimer's and the holograms of former loved ones. “How much does she have to forget,” Jon asks Tess about Marjorie, “before she’s not your mom anymore?”
Mitchel Benson is The Bee’s theater critic and a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: A Pulitzer Prize finalist drama that explores the mysteries of human identity and memory and the limits of what technology can replace. Written by Jordan Harrison. Directed by Stephanie Gularte.
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 3.
Cost: $28-$40, including discounts for students, seniors and military.
Information: 916-995-5464 or capstage.org
Running time: About 75 minutes, with no intermission.