April 17, 2019
The East Texas Baptist University Theatre Arts Department concluded the 2018-2019 season with a performance of Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison on Thursday, April 11 through Sunday, April 14. Set in 2062, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Finalist play centers on Marjorie Lancaster, an elderly woman with dementia, and her family. As director, ETBU Theatre Arts Department Chair Traci Ledford personally invested in the production.
“This play speaks to me on a personal level. My family has been impacted by dementia a number of times in the past ten years,” Ledford shared. “I’m not sure I have the words to express how much this play about artificial intelligence, dementia, and depression moved me. I found myself returning to the script, discovering new emotions, themes, and images each time. The characters in this play–the human characters–have an authenticity about them that comes across as poignantly raw and honest. This play highlights how empty it feels to love a shell of a person—or their copy: shadows and facsimiles never satisfy our deep need for human connection.”
From lighting and sound to set pieces and costumes, the cast and crew integrated the unifying concept of shadows into each design element. Shades of grey were incorporated into the costumes of the Primes, holograms created to console grief and preserve memories, to represent their dull nature. The plants, alive when the show begins, gradually wither and fade as the play progresses, reflecting the characters’ journey. Although the department dealt with a short timeframe, they constructed a set full of meaning.
“We are on strict construction schedules for each performance, but this show was especially difficult due to spring break being at the start of the production cycle,” ETBU Technical Director Trace Craver explained. “We were given 18 days to put together the set for Marjorie Prime, but everyone pitched in to ensure the final product was completed in time. I always enjoy seeing a set come together. It is rewarding to see everyone’s hard work pay off.”
With the help of four people, ETBU freshman Anna Beth Simmons spent three hours each rehearsal and performance applying Marjorie’s makeup and wig. In addition to her appearance, Simmons worked diligently to adequately depict the psychological state of her character.
“My biggest challenge was portraying dementia accurately. I relied on Professor Ledford’s experience to guide my performance,” Simmons said. “Through Marjorie Prime, I have grown in confidence, socially, and found the concept of loss relatable. While the script includes the struggle involved with dementia, depression, and grief, the story is ultimately about the importance of love.”
Many of the actors faced the challenge of rendering their characters authentically as humans and artificially as Primes. In her role as Tess, ETBU senior Payton Weinzapfel shifted her entire demeanor from warm and complex to hollow and calculated.
“Tess is honest and bold, which made her a great character to play,” Weinzapfel commented. “She tends to suppress her emotions until they surprise and overwhelm her. Transitioning from laughing to being on the brink of tears was difficult as an actor. In the last act of the show, my costume and demeanor changed drastically as Tess becomes a Prime. Although Tess Prime smiles more, she loses the warmth Tess had. She casually talked, while Tess Prime spoke more formally and crisply.” Weinzapfel continued, “The themes were handled in a way that allowed the audience to reflect on their own lives. As a Christian, I hope viewers realize the lack of hope these characters have and cling to the hope and purpose offered by Jesus.”
Ledford directed the final scene, which included the Primes of Walter, Marjorie, and Tess for an undisclosed amount of time, to unsettle the audience and cause a thought-provoking response.
“The idea is that when the audience left, the show lingered in their minds and they have to process what they have seen,” Ledford said. “Marjorie’s family is a family without faith—an absence that raises its ugly head clearly throughout the play. These individuals live without any hope of reunion and restoration, creating inconsolable grief and despair. Conversely, the hope we at ETBU have in a loving Creator makes our struggles and battles temporary; Christians can have hope that one day our griefs will be turned into joys.”