“MARJORIE PRIME,” the taut 80-minute family drama by Jordan Harrison now playing at the Olney Theatre Center, is set in the future, although it takes a while for the hints and suggestions in the dialogue to make that clear. The play opens with a focus on kinda crusty 85-year-old Marjorie (Kathleen Butler), who has moments of remembering and moments of forgetting, the latter clearly getting the upper hand in these last years of her life.
Enter the “prime,” a computerized hologram of her late husband, Walter. “Walter Prime” (Michael Glenn) has been given enough information, by Marjorie’s rather brittle middle-aged daughter (Julie-Ann Elliott) and gentle, forgiving son-in-law (Michael Willis), that he can chat convincingly with Marjorie about their shared past. “Something is a little off with the nose . . . You’re a good Walter, though,” Marjorie says at one point, so we know she understands what’s going on here, at least part of the time.
The robot’s soothing conversation often awakens dim memories in Marjorie, and when they elicit new information from her, Walter can reprogram himself to adjust. (The real Walter proposed to Marjorie after the two of them went to see “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” Marjorie says she wishes it had been a really good movie, such as “Casablanca.” In Walter Prime’s next recounting of the proposal, “Casablanca” it is.)
What a wonderful opportunity to craft new and better memories for oneself. On the final stretch does it matter, really, if the facts aren’t facts?
A play about memory sparks so many thoughts, some of them disturbing. Who will I be when I can no longer remember who I’ve been? How can I reach out if no one seems familiar and trustworthy? But we’ve all heard tales about people’s mothers not recognizing them but engaging in pleasant conversation anyway.
Again, maybe it just doesn’t matter; maybe we’re far away by that point.
I remember my father telling me about the firehouse around the corner from where he grew up on Manhattan’s West Side. He and his pal Tommy, both 10, would spend afternoons hanging out in front just to wait for the excitement. When the fire bell rang, the chain in front of each fire horse’s stall dropped automatically—this is about 1918—and the horses would move forward to stand under the hoist, where the harnesses could be dropped gently onto their backs, to be cinched up by the firemen.
Then, my father said, the firemen and the horses would rush out onto the street—and, he said, it was exciting to see the sparks from the horses’ hooves striking the cobblestones.
His own father had a West Side garage that recharged the fleets of electric delivery vehicles used by department stores and “carriage trade” grocers. So why were firemen still using horses, I asked. “Because it was cheaper to feed a horse,” came his answer.
The anecdote gave me a glimpse into the nature of technological progress, how it doesn’t necessarily happen in a straight line; but it also gave me a glimpse of my dad. It’s not much, but it’s the kind of memory, the kind of detail about his life, I wish I had more of. (Of course I also like that it’s about old New York.) We all wish we had asked our parents and grandparents questions before they died. But being born to the only taciturn Irishman then alive (actually, Irish American) was a challenge I couldn’t meet.
And I guess Walter Prime, or in my dad’s case “William Prime,” wouldn’t be able to add to my store of knowledge. But I’m very interested in primes! And I want the next generation of them to answer questions, fill in familial blanks, not just retrieve my memories. And in the end, I probably won’t care whether the stories, or the memories, are true.
Playing Wednesdays through Sundays through April 10 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Maryland. Tickets: $38 to $65. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.