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‘Marjorie Prime’ provocatively mixes sci-fi, family drama

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Joy Carlin, pictured with Thomas Gorrebeeck, plays the title character in Marin Theatre Company’s production of “Marjorie Prime. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

An elderly mother, Marjorie, has early-stage dementia. What does she remember, what has she forgotten? What memories has she purposely buried?

She’s cared for by her anxious, solicitous fiftysomething daughter Tess. “She’s the mother now,” shrugs Marjorie cheerfully.

Tess is approaching a perfect storm of resentment and guilt about the mother she believes never loved her enough. And Tess’ own adult daughter currently refuses to see her, for reasons unknown to Tess (and to us).

All Tess wants to do is go far, far away — to Madagascar.

Tess’s concerned husband, Jon, is caught in the middle.

Grief, memory (and its inevitable loss), troubled parent-child relationships, silence and emotional distance between spouses and, on a broader scale, existential despair, all waft through Jordan Harrison’s lean, compact 2015 drama, “Marjorie Prime.”

Marin Theatre Company’s production of this dark and mysterious play is perfectly calibrated, crystalline, as performed by an excellent quartet under the direction of Ken Rus Schmoll.

What expands Harrison’s exploration, takes it beyond the scope of so many contemporary plays on similar themes — dysfunctional families, aging, love and loss, fear and regret — and makes it utterly unique, is its ever-so-slightly futuristic setting.

In Harrison’s world, lifelike robots, available as stand-ins for dead loved ones, provide solace to the living. The look-alike humanoids are programmed with the deceased’s actual memories. The very thought of such a reality makes the mind spin and keep spinning as the play proceeds in carefully structured increments.

Marjorie (the always superb Joy Carlin) has one such “prime” in the form of her late husband, Walter (a perfectly cast Tommy Gorrebeeck, ever-so-slightly wooden, a compassionate smile at the ready); actually, he’s Walter in his 30s, presumably to match Marjorie’s long-term memory, now much stronger than her short-term memory.

High-strung Tess (the impressive Julie Eccles) disapproves of this artificial panacea.

“Science fiction is here,” she says grimly. And, bitterly, “Am I supposed to not notice that she’s being nicer to that thing than to me?”

The “thing,” when not activated, stands immobile in a corner, an eerie presence.

But Jon (Anthony Fusco, wonderfully low-key) sees the benefits.

Do we? Is the comfort of a death-denying “prime” ultimately a true gift to a person with memory loss?

What about to a younger, able-minded person who’s lost a parent or mate? And where does normal human mourning fit in?

An inconclusive ending merely makes Harrison’s play all the more mystifying—and intriguing.

Marjorie Prime
Where: Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; closes May 27
Tickets: $22 to $60
Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org

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