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Playhouse creates a memorable ‘Marjorie’

YOUNGSTOWN — What would we want to remember? What would we want others to remember about us? What lengths would we go to in order to shape the answers to those and other questions?

Those are just a few of the questions theatergoers no doubt will debate on the drive home from Youngstown Playhouse’s production of “Marjorie Prime,” a thought-provoking play by Jordan Harrison that opened Friday for a two-weekend run.

The plot wouldn’t be out of place for an episode of “Black Mirror,” although the script is less about technology run amok and more about what the technology brings out in those who use it.

Set about 40 to 50 years in the future, primes are human-like artificial intelligence androids that can process the information they are given and repeat it back to their user.

Tess (Rosalyn Blystone), with the encouragement of her husband Jon (Carl Brockway), gets a prime for her 85-year-old mother Marjorie (Molly Galano). Marjorie has Alzheimer’s, but she and her family still can tell stories to her prime, which resembles her late husband Walter early in their marriage, and Walter will be able to keep her company and tell her those stories when she no longer can remember them herself.

But Marjorie wants to tweak some of the stories. Why can’t the movie Walter proposed to her after be “Casablanca,” not “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” she asks.

There are more consequential stories (and people) that Tess and Jon debate about whether they should be part of the memories Marjorie keeps. And each choice comes with ripple effects.

“Marjorie Prime” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2015, and one of the many questions it asks is one pondered by the winner the following year — “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

Director Susi Thompson and a talented cast elevate “Marjorie Prime” to more than just an intriguing philosophical debate.

Galano’s Marjorie is alternately feisty and heartbreaking. She’s a fiercely independent woman who still has enough of her mind and memory to realize what is slipping away. It’s a bravura performance by one of the Valley’s best actors.

Blystone, if anything, is even better as Tess. She never was particularly close to her mother and feels a combination of hurt and jealousy that her mother seems more comfortable talking to a thing instead of her own daughter.

As the play takes some unexpected turns, the challenges of Blystone’s role multiply, and she handles each twist in a way that makes the viewer feel everything Tess is going through.

The women have the showier roles, but Brockway and Brian Suchora also do fine work. In the early scenes, Brockway and Blystone convey the affection Jon and Tess have for each other, even when they’re arguing over her mother’s care. And like Blystone, Brockway effectively takes Jon to some darker places.

Suchora is a soothing, slightly detached presence as Walter. He does nothing overt to indicate he’s nonhuman, but Suchora’s cadence and behavior has a slightly programmed feel that is perfect for the character. And as someone who is naturally fidgety, I was impressed at how Suchora sat motionless for long stretches when Walter isn’t in use.

The show plays out on a simple set with just a few pieces of furniture, and Thompson’s direction uses the space well. And her costuming helps transmit some of the important dramatic shifts in the story.

“Marjorie Prime” runs about 75 minutes with no intermission, but it’s a show that will linger in the memory long after it’s over.

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