Peering across the black box theater, you might be forgiven for assuming Marjorie Prime is a sentimental examination of family. After all, based on its sparse, four-person cast and its minimally decorated and rotating stage in the center of the Evelyn Wheeler Swenson Theater, it seems, well, small. But like memory, time and space are merely constructs expertly manipulated by Allen Dean’s excellent set in this well-executed production directed by Sasha Maya Ada at Stage West through February 11.
“How much does she have to forget before she is not your mom anymore?”
Early in Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-finalist play, Marjorie’s son-in-law posits this question to his wife regarding her mother’s condition. A great one to pose when a family member is steadily slipping toward the thief of time and memory, Alzheimer’s. Though the play does examine familial and generational trauma, don’t be fooled. This progressive work owes as much of its DNA to a Black Mirror episode or Spike Jonze’s Her as it does to Arthur Miller.
First performed in Los Angeles in 2014, Marjorie Prime presciently explores the world of artificial intelligence and the importance of the stories we tell ourselves. Joseph Campbell, meet Chat GPT 4. The title character (Cindee Mayfield), an octogenarian dealing with the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, is under the care of daughter Tess (Shannon J. McGrann) and her husband Jon (Jakie Cabe) at the younger couple’s home. The only catch is that they have help via an AI program appearing as a hologram. The purpose of Walter (Parker Gray) is to keep Marjorie from slipping any further into mental deterioration by reinforcing her past through forgotten memories and stories, but the crux of this entire endeavor hinges on this very idea: Whose stories are these? Experience, perspective, motive, and time all begin to weave complicated webs. This, though, is only the initial conceit. The story continues to evolve in interesting and unexpected ways, which I won’t spoil here.
Because so much of Marjorie Prime depends on the changes of characters over time, the small cast has a heavy burden to carry in this tightly focused space. Mayfield’s expertly nuanced performance as Marjorie drives much of the narrative and provides a perfect backdrop for the other characters to react. The mother/daughter dynamic between her and Tess is central to the play’s success, and as the daughter, McGrann portrays the duality of both mourning and anger with precision. Son-in-law Jon is afforded the leeway to act as both a mediator and a detached caregiver, which gives Cabe the space to leverage much of the needed comedic respite, and in this, he shines.
The tricky part of delivering a high-concept idea is translating the technological aspects of the production for the stage. How do you insert an artificial intelligence onto an already crowded space when the AI appears and disappears based on different characters’ perspectives? If even that sounds confusing, it doesn’t play that way thanks to both Gray’s measured performance as Walter in its early learning stages and to Ada’s deft staging. Walter, when not directly working with Marjorie or Jon, is just on the outskirts of the stage in power-down mode with what appears to be some sort of lapel light. Not always quite “there” but not completely gone, he exists as the algorithms that run our lives. Always in the peripheral. Walking the line of both being and not being a person requires a restrained performance, and Gray does an excellent job exploring the multifaceted personality of Walter in all of his stages.
The set is both a gift and an obstacle. The ever-changing perspectives of the characters is matched by the slow rotation of the stage, which is an interesting and effective mirroring of the changing character perspectives through time, but it limits the space the actors must work in, putting them in closer proximity to the AI, who is not always visible to all the characters. Perhaps a touch more physical connection among the main characters would make a starker contrast between the humans and the AI more noticeable. Not that these characters necessarily lack this, but in close quarters, the stage becomes a tad overcrowded but never seriously problematic. And it all pays off in Part 3, when we reach the Bradbury-esque coda that enables the staging to pay off in a satisfying way.
Thru Sun, Feb 11, at Stage West Theatre,
821 W Vickery Blvd, FW. $45.50-49.50.