Let’s begin in Norwich. There the streets loop around three grand structures; it feels like a möbius strip, and at gloaming, the sky’s rose reflects through the gothic windows. We go first to the wrong theater, but a kindly man with white hair directs us further down the strip. We are greeted by the director, but then she knows who we are. We’re friends. The place is packed.
We’re lucky to get a row. We’re lucky to see this production, but I don’t know that yet. I’m just happy to be seeing my first bit of live theater this year.
Before going to see the Chelsea Players perform Marjorie Prime, I’d never heard of the play, but it’s been crowned in glory — a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a 2017 movie with actors such as Jon Hamm and Geena Davis.
I read the plot summary, but it didn’t come close to communicating the emotional power the play has. The Chelsea Players brought the characters so vividly to life that, weeks later, I am still haunted by a particular expression on Marjorie’s face, I am still thinking about what the play showed us and what it didn’t show us.
Beside me, a silvery older gentleman says — with the crackle of a bemused smile in his voice — “It looks like Faye Ringel has her own fanbase.”
“I know about this performance because of her; she’s incredible!” I say, turning away from the people I came in with. “What about you?”
“We love the Chelsea Players,” he says. “They’re just fantastic. We’ve tried to see everything for, oh, the last twenty years.”
He goes on to paint a picture of a theater troupe with an extraordinary repertoire, of a brightness in the community. The lights flash; we’re being summoned into silence, asked to become audience. The man and I smile at one another, then pay our attention stageward.
Here’s the basic plot. Marjorie is an old woman with Alzheimer’s, being taken care of by her daughter, Theresa, and her son-in-law, John. Theresa and John have signed up for the “Prime” program via Senior Serenity, which sets you up with a holographic AI that can be given the shape, voice, and eventually personality of a person from your life. The idea is you’ll help this Prime become more like the person it looks like so it can tell you stories about your life and you’ll remember them.
Marjorie has chosen her dead husband Walter, but a young, hot version of Walter. The whole thing weirds Theresa out. Theresa is skeptical about the program, skeptical about whether or not it helps. Theresa is raw and angry and wonderful and she asks a lot of the questions that we ask. John is enthusiastic about the program; he is a compassionate, likable man, who helps feed the AI stories about Walter and Marjorie’s life.
The play marches on. We see Theresa speaking to a Marjorie Prime, because Marjorie has recently died. We see her reacting to all of these almost-Marjorie gestures, to what is exactly her mother and what isn’t. Theresa is not dealing well with her mother’s death.
The play marches on. We see John speaking to a Theresa Prime. He is quiet, gentle, and so sad. He puts the Prime away.
We see them talking with one another, all of the Primes. They only ever use lines from stories they were told but the stories have life. We, the audience, know when they’re not telling something true, but they don’t know.
The truth will out, however.