BWW Review: MARJORIE PRIME Asks Us to Take an Intimate Look at Our Relationship with Technology, at Artists Rep
Think about someone important to you who has died. Now imagine you could make an Artificial Intelligence (AI) robot who looked and acted exactly like your lost loved one. Would you do it? What if you were elderly and needed care? What if you were lonely? And what would that mean for the nature of human relationships? These are just a few of the questions Jordan Harrison's MARJORIE PRIME, now playing at Artists Rep, asks us to consider.
The set up is this: The year is 2062. Marjorie (played by a most excellent Vana O'Brien) is 85 years old. She lost her husband, Walter, 10 years before. Now, she's suffering from memory loss and other conditions common in old age. By this time, technology has advanced to the point where robots look and act very much like human beings, and we have the ability to make robotic versions of real people, called Primes. As you interact with a Prime and tell them about the history of the person they're modeled on, they become more and more like your vision of that person. (Before you start thinking this all sounds too crazy, check out Sophia, who is currently the most advanced robot in the world.)
For her Prime, Marjorie has chosen a 30-year-old version of Walter (Chris Harder). His purpose is to provide comfort and care for Marjorie when she's alone. And it's working -- Marjorie has lost her appetite, and Walter seems to be the only one capable of cajoling her into eating.
This all doesn't sit particularly well with Marjorie's daughter, Tess (Linda Alper), who is both suspicious of and threatened by a robot taking care of her elderly mom.
As Marjorie contemplates the end of her life, and Tess works through her feelings toward her mother, and Jon (Tess's husband, played by Michael Mendelson) tries to make everything right, and everyone interacts with the Prime, we as the audience are asked to think about the most significant relationships in our own lives and how, even now, they are being impacted by technology.
I loved this play. Many shows deal with our relationship to technology, but this one is different in that it approaches the topic in an incredibly intimate way. It uses technology as a springboard for a conversation about what's most important in human relationships. Is it caring? Company? Shared memories? Even if any or all of these things could be provided by a robot, should they be?
These are important questions to raise now as we're on the cusp of robots becoming much more integrated into our lives. As I write this, a program is underway to test the ability of robots to provide eldercare in senior housing facilities.
If you've seen any shows at Artists Rep lately (such as last year's THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH), you'll likely recognize all four actors who make up the cast. O'Brien, Harder, Alper, and Mendelson are all Resident Artists at the theatre (O'Brien was a co-founder of the company). These four actors are each of the caliber that I will see anything starring any one of them based on the rationale that even if the play were awful, at least I'd get to see a great performance. Put them onstage together in a play that is the exact opposite of awful and you get the kind of theatrical experience that you know will have you chasing the dragon for a long time to come.
I see a lot of theatre, and people often ask me if I ever get bored of it. The answer is "no," for the simple reason of plays like this that compel me to think and talk about them long after the lights have come up. The fact that almost the entire audience stayed for the talkback after the show suggests that I'm not the only one.
MARJORIE PRIME plays through March 5. More info and tickets here.
Photo credit: John Rudoff