With director Stewart Arnott’s quietly affecting production, Coal Mine Theatre brings Jordan Harrison’s humanistic sci-fi play, Marjorie Prime, to life. Set in the very near future, it features some eerie bereavement-assistance tech called Prime. With it, people can process their grief by interacting with a programable synthetic version of their lost loved one. This, as you can imagine, forces the characters and the audience to grapple, almost constantly, with the meaning of human connection.
We open with Marjorie (Martha Henry) and Walter (Gordon Hecht), husband and wife, reminiscing about the early days of their relationship. Their dynamic is jovial, but it is clear, right out of the gate, that something is off. She’s in her eighties and he’s barely out of his twenties. He also seems uncomfortably obliging. As she coaches him to be a more accurate Walter, we quickly understand the situation. And we can feel how the truth of our lives is tangled up in how we remember it.
As Marjorie tries to engage with her past, her memory proves unreliable. She handles this with graceful good humour and Henry conveys her with puckish glee. Through the subtlest of gestures, she also lets us glimpse the torment and terror of losing track of your own life. Henry has a quiet magnetism that, even in stillness, holds your attention firmly. In one particularly agonizing moment, she allows Marjorie’s embarrassment at her own helplessness come fully to the surface, and we are suddenly aware of how much guilt and shame she’s been holding.
Majorie’s daughter, Tess (Sarah Dodd) is wary of this Walter and his impact on her mother. His presence, and the past trauma that is gradually unearthed, puts further strain on their already prickly relationship. Her affable husband, Jon (Beau Dixon), makes a valiant attempt to comfort them, though we eventually see even his enthusiasm as the brave mask it is. Dodd and Dixon, perfect foils for each other, invite us into a loving yet troubled alliance. They, too, cope with much through humour. When their facades eventually crumble, though, the cost of life is laid bare.
The mechanics of Prime technology are never addressed. As the story progresses, and the line between reality and artifice is blurred, it becomes clear that that the technology itself isn’t the point. This sharing of memories, of coaching each other through the story of our lives, is a familiar human phenomenon.
The not-so-distant future is made mundane and relatable in Gillian Gallow’s modest set. A simple counter and cupboards opposite a very large, curtained window. It is with slight, telling details that she suggests a world only slightly ahead of our own. That window, lit by Nick Blais, provides a steady, ambient radiance. The light shifts in temperature in a way that carries thematic intention. I felt distrustful of this light, as if it had been created to distract us and the characters from some bleak nothingness beyond the room.
That bleakness comes from Harrison’s text. Tess’s lament about the routine of life—that banal series tasks and routines and social engagement leading, finally, to an end—sent a chill though me. The play does not coddle you with reassurances, but it does provide some comfort in its honest, probing attention to our precarious, self-conscious existence.