Marjorie Prime
★★★ ½
Through May 13
Manbites Dog Theater, Durham

The theory of the “uncanny valley” has taken on increasing importance in recent years. It refers to the phenomenon that human replicas prompt feelings of distaste and distrust when they look, talk, act or move like human beings, but not quite.

The idea has become a subject of significant research and the subject of films like Ex Machina, television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, and plays including Francesca Talenti’s 2013 drama The Uncanny Valley at UNC and Marjorie Prime, now at Manbites Dog Theater. But the concept is actually much older than the four brief decades since the phrase was first coined. And it is hardly limited to robotics, personal assistants like Siri and Alexa, and digital animation.

In fact, stage artists have grappled with the same problem since the fourth century BCE, when Aristotle first stated that theater aspires to the lifelike imitation of human character and actions. In the house ball culture of the 1980s, advocates of another form of imitation noted that “realness” lay at the foundation of successful drag performance.

But how much realness do the people in Jordan Harrison’s near-future drama really want from their “primes”—the cybernetic simulacra they’ve devised to resemble deceased loved ones? When Tess (Lenore Field) and her husband Jon (Michael Brocki) acquire a prime through a government program called “Senior Serenity” for Tess’s mother, Marjorie (Marcia Edmondson), the answer to that question is not obvious.

With her short- and long-term memory diminishing, Marjorie needs a minder during their workday, someone or something to encourage her to eat as well as to function as a sort of human playback unit, to help reinforce what Jon terms “eight or nine stories to hold on to.”

As time passes, the other members of this family turn to primes for more dubious reasons. When they do, playwright Harrison and director Jeff Storer cogently ask if such technology is an appropriate tool for psychotherapy or to lessen the pains of bereavement. Both ask what, exactly, can such units replace of those who go missing in our lives—and how much will we either want or need them to?

As with the current production of Revival at Ward Theatre, Marjorie Prime challenges the conventional terms of theater criticism. In the former, we’re asked to review an audience at a tent revival, instead of its conductors, and assess the aesthetic components of people having, resisting, or possibly faking a religious experience. In Marjorie Prime, the critical work involves determining the merits of differing, almost-human primes, in addition to judging the director’s work and the actors’ success in depicting Harrison’s human characters.

Harrison makes this more difficult than it needs to be. His text occasionally descends into painfully obvious exposition. And despite brief references to family members and a too-late afterthought invoking two friends in the last act, we learn next to nothing about the lives Tess and Jon have outside the circle of plot-related shadowboxes that surround designer Sonya Leigh Drum’s tasteful living room set. When a script fails to render characters fully dimensional, it’s difficult for performers to appear so.

That’s why I’m still not sure if I buy these characters—that is, beyond the ones I’m not supposed to buy as entirely human in the first place: Walter, Marjorie’s prime, to whom Derrick Ivey brings appropriately fleeting warmth and fellow feeling, and those I won’t name here, to prevent spoilers, who step in as other primes along the way.

Over the years, Marcia Edmondson has repeatedly taken us across the uncanny valley of the theater through her masterful performances. Her work here as Marjorie is another strong addition to her lengthy résumé. As Marjorie’s unhappy adult daughter, Tess, Lenore Field, another undisputed talent, fills in the blanks left missing by the playwright. Though Michael Brocki has yet to achieve the artistic heights of his fellow actors, he shows encouraging growth. Sound designer Joseph Amodei makes violinist Olivia Branscum’s quotes from Vivaldi as haunting as a beautiful but fading memory.

In Manbites Dog’s 2015 production of Mr. Burns, humans display the capacity to take stories and create something greater from them. In Marjorie Prime, when primes do something else with our stories, we see a different vision of the future. Even after factoring in the post-apocalypse depicted in the former play, it’s hard to say which version is preferable.