Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Marjorie Prime

Santa Fe Playhouse
Review by Carla Cafolla

Also see Carla's review of Guards at the Taj

Carolyn Wickwire and Jeff Nell
Photo by Lynn Roylance
When Cicero said "The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living," it's fairly certain he wasn't thinking about Marjorie Prime. Likewise, Descartes, with his "Cogito, ergo sum". The problem is—I can't stop thinking about Marjorie Prime. And odds are you won't be able to either. The play will rattle around in your head. Cosmoi of quandaries will begin to unfurl. And in the end, you, like me, may be none the wiser, and no closer to an answer.

Marjorie Prime, written by Jordan Harrison, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015. When you see this play, directed by Duchess Dale at the Santa Fe Playhouse, you will understand why.

Set in the near future, perhaps as far ahead as debit cards were ago, Marjorie Prime begins with Marjorie (Carolyn Wickwire), elderly, frail and forgetful, chatting with a much younger, quite contained man in her living room. We learn as the scene progresses that this young man is a "prime," a hologram of Marjorie's husband Walter (David Ballowe), made to appear as he was in their early days together. He has been bought as a gift from Marjorie's son-in-law Jon (Jeff Nell) to help slow the effects of her dementia, and to keep her company during the times she would otherwise be alone. Walter Prime has no memories of his own. He, and other primes are fed information, anecdotes, histories, and descriptions of personality traits related to the departed people they have been created to emulate. As the memories they are given are based on the recollections of the people giving them, we see how these memories can and are changed to suit the teller.

Ethical and moral issues soon surface. Tess (Karen Ryan), Marjorie's daughter, is openly distrustful of the technology. Jon, her more practical husband, sees the prime as a reasonable solution to their problem. Marjorie, having chosen the version of her late husband herself, is quite enjoying reliving—and training Walter to relive and revise—certain memories, sometimes hilariously. The play progresses with a fluid time scale, more primes being created to replace those who die, and it is only when it glides into its conclusion that the implications of what you witnessed come home to roost.

This is a stellar production, one I highly recommend. It is brought to life by a carefully chosen cast: Carolyn Wickwire is, as always, perfect. I love her work on stage. Despite her progressive dementia, Marjorie is at times, forgetful, anxious, coquettish, teasing, forceful and pathetic. Now and then the healthy Marjorie peeks through, and telling Walter it is he who is "getting better" while she continues her decline, is a sly indication of what the future holds.

David Ballowe fits Walter Prime to a T. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, Ballowe is a perfect mix of programmed interest and algorithms. Always in character, I was impressed by how unobtrusively he fades away when not required, and just as easily rejoins the world when needed.

Karen Ryan has, as Tess, probably the most difficult role. And she plays a blinder. In an 80 or so minute play with no intermission, it's difficult to develop as a rounded character. But Ryan manages it. You can feel Tess's frustration, her sadness and anger. She's a short-tempered woman, disappointed in her relationship with her mother as well as with her children. Her pithy sarcasm shows a wry sense of humor, but her brother Damien's teenage suicide and the impact it has on her family's life is tragic.

Jeff Nell plays a supporting role as Jon, the supportive husband until later in the show. Then he comes into his own. We suddenly see his passion for life, his inner flame. This is in contrast to his far less demonstrative family. Poor Jon. He desperately tries to instill, to revive this in his wife before and after her death, and in trying, shows us the limitations we put upon ourselves.

The set itself is the fifth actor. It waxes and wanes (mostly wanes) from beginning to end. As humanity fades, so too does the set. Clever, and subtly done. One thing my companion noted was that the area where the primes go when not needed is almost like a charging station. I don't know if this was the intent, but it's certainly apt.

There is music and it is beautiful and evocative. I really appreciate the thought that went into the song by Christina Perri which contains the lines, "I have loved you for a thousand years, I'll love you for a thousand more". Bravo.

Lighting and costuming are also excellent. The blackouts between scenes are swift and smooth, and don't impede the flow of the show.

One thing I must comment on is the program. How nice to see that (almost) everyone who worked on the show gets a bio. Not just the "top tier" of director and stage manager (Rayna Valladarez). Other theatre companies in the area should take note. It's like "votes for women" in Albuquerque theatres when it comes to giving credit to the people who, without whom we would not have a show. I feel rather Emily Pankhurst-ish about this entire issue, and have soap box at the ready.

So, David Carter, set design and construction; DD Sherringford, assistant lighting design and scenic painter; Annie Lui, lighting design; Ali Olhausen, costume designer; Miles Blitch, sound design—hello, nice to know a little about you.

Lada Ballowe, assistant stage manager and Stephanie Baacke, lone, brave run crew person, I'll see your bios soon, I'm sure.

Marjorie Prime, through May 19, 2019, at Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E De Vargas St., Santa Fe NM. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $15 - $25 and are available at