Friday, September 21, 2018
Stage

Grief and loss, artificial intelligence and wit all factor into ‘Marjorie Prime’

ST. PETERSBURG — Compared with the artificial intelligence in Marjorie Prime, Siri looks primitive.

The family in Jordan Harrison’s futuristic play takes artificial intelligence to unforeseen levels, asking machines to help them through grief. In their world, set in 2050, you do that with a computer program that recreates the dead. That forms the play’s tension, with the newest devices taking the edge off of the oldest and deepest pain, that of losing loved ones.

The show marks a first-ever co-production for American Stage, and will run in May with the same cast in Sacramento, Calif. Stephanie Gularte, American Stage’s producing artistic director who directs this show, co-founded Capital Stage in Sacramento. Besides the novelty of theaters on opposite coasts joining forces, the production could also be seen as a playful experiment with demographics. The median age in Sacramento is 33.8; it’s 41.9 in St. Petersburg. This play, which centers on an 85-year-old woman interacting with a holographic projection of her late husband, could appeal to older and younger audiences.

A sleek set by Jerid Fox plausibly imagines an interior design 30 years away without going Star Trek. Aqua and ivory tones dominate the living room of an upper-middle-class household. A piece of abstract art bulges slightly from the wall. Its edges light up in the dark as if pulsating in thought. Only one piece of furniture clashes — the red chair inhabited by Marjorie, who is approaching the brink of dementia.

Janis Stevens masterfully plays the title character, who is trying to hold onto a self she sees slipping away. Walter Prime, an animated substitute for her late husband, prompts her memory with stories he has just learned, even though some of these were always embellished. Brock D. Vickers walks a delicate line between fully realized human being and a computer program that is still learning. "Primes," the brand name for these holograms, reveal their blank spots not by what they say but what they don’t say. At such times, Vickers as Walter gazes evenly at Marjorie and says, "I don’t have that information."

These holographic projections must be trained, but it’s not that big a deal. All you have to do is feed them information about the deceased, then expect them to learn on the job. Indeed, they never stop learning.

What makes this play (a 2015 Pulitzer finalist) stand out is its simultaneous portrayal of ageless family dynamics and our increasing reliance on technology to solve problems. Marjorie is mother to Tess, who worries understandably and a little too much. Jon, Tess’ husband, grinds his way through complicated family dynamics with relentless honesty and a son-in-law’s sense of burden. Jamie Jones and Steven Sean Garland play this couple, who in some ways suffer the most, with an acute humanity. A family secret — the murder-suicide decades earlier of 13-year-old Damien and his beloved dog — still hangs over the family. A further layer of surprise unfolds when Marjorie dies and is replaced by a Prime version of herself, her red throne now switched out with an ivory chair.

This is a very taut production of an insightful play. The reality is presents ought to frighten us. Instead it seems all too believable. Can these digital projections appreciate grief or even simulate love? They’re working on it.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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