'Marjorie Prime' Takes On Artificial Intelligence And Aging

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 2, 2015 9:46PM

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'Marjorie Prime' at Writers Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Writers Theatre’s thought-provoking four-person play, Marjorie Prime, is set several decades from now, replete with artificial intelligence and quips about the obsolescence of the iPod. But despite being firmly set in the future, the play is centered on the past, exploring the uniquely human tendency to perseverate on time gone by, even when we can no longer remember it correctly.

Marjorie herself (Mary Ann Thebus), now 86 years old, was born in the '70s and finds comfort in the form of her long-deceased husband, Walter (Erik Hellman)—or rather, an AI version of Walter in his youth, programmed to remember highlights of their life together as Marjorie’s own memory declines. Marjorie’s bitter daughter, Tess (a brilliant-as-always Kate Fry) is suspicious of the technology, not quite believing that these “primes” can stand in for the true companionship of a loved one. Tess’ husband, Jon (an equally brilliant Nathan Hosner), loves the idea and feeds Walter bits of information to help the prime seem more like the real thing. Before long, it’s clear that Tess is more than distrustful, she’s jealous. “Science fiction is here,” she tells Jon. “We tell them our deepest secrets, even though we have no earthly idea how they work.”

As the play unfolds, and more primes are introduced, the audience gets a deeper glimpse into the lives of the main characters, revealed through the idealized version of the past that the primes represent. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set and Jenny Mannis’ costume design, awash in blacks and grays, work in tandem to support the play’s bleak tone, occasionally punctuated by Marjorie’s colorful one-liners. (Impressively, Thebus pivots almost instantly from sympathetic, ailing grandmother to hard-edged octogenarian.)

Marjorie Prime is compelling and whip-smart, even when the 80-minute play has difficulty sustaining its dramatic pacing. Like Marjorie’s life, the plot starts to unwind, gradually, and we’re left wishing we had a bit more time. So what is there to do, then, than savor the past?

The show runs through Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016 at Writers Theatre's Books on Vernon location, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe, 847-242-6011 or online.