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In “Marjorie Prime,” a memory machine that might be all too human

Neuroscientists probing the human brain have discovered many things about how memory works – from where it is “stored” to how it can be erased as a result of accidents, illness and aging. Yet on many levels memory remains a profound mystery, and the scientists now at work on the most sophisticated forms of artificial intelligence are really “building” something based on organic phenomena yet to be fully understood.

Memory is an essential element of life – crucial to thought, feeling, progress,  identity. But it also comes into play with particular power and meaning after someone who has been loved dies. And it is this tension between life and death – with memory functioning as connective tissue – that animates Jordan Harrison’s subtly shattering play, “Marjorie Prime.”

Erik Hellman and Mary Ann Thebus in the Writers Theatre production of "Marjorie Prime." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Erik Hellman and Mary Ann Thebus in the Writers Theatre production of “Marjorie Prime.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

‘MARJORIE PRIME’

Recommended

When: Through March 13, 2016

Where: Writers Theater at

Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe

Tickets: $35 – $70

Info: (847) 242-6000;

http://www.writerstheatre.org

Run time: 85 minutes

with no intermission

Watching this masterfully acted 85-minute work unfold at Writers Theatre – where director Kimberly Senior has gathered a sterling quartet of actors who mesh like a string quartet – might hit far too close to home for those with aging parents. But don’t fool yourself. Accrual and loss are elements of everyone’s life, regardless of age.

The most obvious question asked in the play is this: Can a programmed “machine” simulate a dead loved one in his or her prime, and generate even more powerful (if heavily mediated) memories than such old-fashioned things as letters, photos and other keepsakes? But Harrison, who has set his play a good many decades from now, delves far deeper into things than the mechanical nature of artificial intelligence. It is the metaphysical matters at play here that are of the essence. What does it mean to be human?

At the play’s center is Marjorie (Mary Ann Thebus), an 85-year-old woman whose husband, Walter (Erik Hellman), has been dead for 26 years. Marjorie, whose memory might be fading at moments – but who still possesses a wicked wit, the desire to be desirable, and a certain amount of vanity – is living with her daughter, Tess (Kate Fry), and son-in-law, Jon (Nathan Hosner). Keeping her company at times is a youthful version of Walter they’ve brought into the house by way of the latest technology and have had carefully programmed with knowledge of past events and typical responses from Marjorie’s married life.

The goal is to keep here connected to a crucial part of her past. But Tess, who still has many unresolved issues about her relationship to her mother, and about the death, years earlier, of her troubled brother, believes this conjured “Walter” is a deeply misguided tool. She wants the truth of real connection (or disconnection), yet is fearful of it. And this plays itself out in Tess’ loving but profoundly contentious relationship with Jon.

Is memory ultimately a contest between existence and death? When does the forward propulsion of life begin to move into reverse? And what role does memory play in all this? No easy answers; just disturbing and disorienting questions. As it should be.

Thebus, with her beautiful snowy white hair and her uncanny ability to flip from brainy edginess and mischief to anger and frustration, is just a few years younger than her character. But her acting chops have never been more superb. Hellman manages to suggest both the charm and benign vacuousness of her “ghostly” Walter. And Hosner is just right as the man who loves a bit more than he is loved, but never falters.

Fry has the most difficult role here for Tess is a tightly wound woman, uneasy with herself and everyone else, and hardly at peace with her roles as mother to three grown children and caretaker of her own mother. But watch her taut face, and the devastating way she curls up on the floor (with its carpeting working a deft trick of transformation of the intimate bookstore space courtesy of set and lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembridge), and you will understand what a great actress can do.

“Marjorie Prime” might well be the last production staged in the bookstore before Writers moves into its grand new home in March. Let’s hope the memory of this unique space can be “primed” a few blocks away.