Nora Theatre's "Marjorie Prime": The Stepford Lives

Sarah deLima & Lee Mikeska Gardner in "Marjorie Prime"
(photo: Nora Theatre)

It's about that gorilla in the room, the automated one, the machine that, if taken too much for granted, might just be about to take over. AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), a machine that could successfully perform any intellectual task that a human can, is by some estimates about a decade away. Marjorie Prime, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, written by Jordan Harrison, is the current production at Nora Theatre, taking on this subject, as well as a much more worrisome one. It's Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI) that worries philosophers. What if machines develop the ability to make mistakes, use misplaced modifiers and non-sequiturs? What if they threaten the completion of Psychologist Daniel Gilbert's “Sentence”: “The human being is the only animal that...”

Heady stuff for an hour and a half play, with innumerable subtexts and implied dangers. By investigating the great mystery of human memory as opposed to the possibility of unlimited promises of technology, this work suggests it's more fact than fantasy. In a world some sixty years from the present, there are some suggestions of advanced tech, such as turning off a musical source with one's fingertips in the air. Most of the world on view seems at first not to have changed all that much, but the playwright has much more in store for us, as he peels back the layers of life as it will be, much like the proverbial onion. As one character says, “pronouns are powerful things”, as are the concepts of then and now, as in the casual use of “didn't/don't”, the expression of living “as one”, the desire for one who “want(s) to be more than human too” and the off-hand remark that “it's amazing what they can do with a few zillion pixels”.

On the surface, this is the story of an 85-year old woman named Marjorie (Sarah deLima), cursed with a fading memory, who is kept company by a handsome young man (Alejandro Simoes) and visited by her daughter Tess (Lee Mikeska Gardner) and Tess' husband Jon (Barlow Adamson). To divulge any further details would be a shame, as the author has a clear and careful, incremental exposition in mind. Suffice it to say that it's as though one combined “The Twilight Zone” with “The Stepford Wives”, and that the word “prime” doesn't refer to anyone's surname. That's just about all one can say without destroying the impact of its numerous revelations.

Presented as part of The Catalyst Collaborative at MIT, and wonderfully Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, it boasts a quartet of excellent performances, all in their prime. Harrison has created a thought-provoking and potentially disturbing work. The creative team provided fine support, from the Scenic Design by Sara Brown to the Costume Design by Penney Pinette, to the Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao and Sound Design and Original Music by Arshan Gailus. It's a testament to its compelling issues that it's just been made into a film, with Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Jon Hamm and Tim Robbins, no less.

At the end of this remarkable play one character sums up: “How nice that we could love somebody”. It's a mark of the genius of this play that this seemingly benign observation is so chilling. And about the completion of “The Sentence”. How about: “The human being is the only animal that.....can write theater reviews”?

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