Many of us have friends named Siri and Alexa, helpful voice-only assistants who are always available to answer questions in a flash and help us navigate our days. These digital creations of the Apple and Amazon mega-universes are becoming omnipresent in a certain segment of the world that is plugged in and loving it.
But imagine the time (probably not too long into the future), when Siri and Alexa, and others like them, acquire a life-size visual presence via hologram technology, so that they can sit across from us, smiling and ready to do our bidding. At that point, the relationship will become much more personal, making it gratifying on some level and deeply creepy on another.
This is part of the concept behind Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison, now being given an exceptional production at Dobama Theatre. When we meet 85-year-old Marjorie, she is sitting in a mildly futuristic room with a young man named Walter of about 30. Through oblique references in the dialog, we learn that Walter is actually a "prime," a hologram of Marjorie's long-deceased husband, as he looked some 50 years earlier. He's a computer-generated repository of all of Marjorie's memories of Walter, which have been downloaded into Walter's memory bank, so she can talk with and relate to this near-version of husband.
In this way, Marjorie Prime enters the almost-here science fiction world trod by the outstanding British TV series Black Mirror (streaming now on Netflix), in which contemporary human beings are confronted with slight but powerful sci-fi tweaks to their existence. In the case of Marjorie, who lives with her middle-age daughter Tess and her son-in-law Jon, she finds comfort conversing with the image of Walter even though his still-developing memory runs into data dead-ends now and then.
Written in a spare, almost poetic style, the play gradually reveals how dependent all of us are on a functioning memory to define our humanity. As far too many people have experienced, when memory leaves the mind of a friend or loved one, through disease or some other cause, that person essentially ceases to exist. And there are few more terrifying thoughts for us as individuals than losing the ability to remember who we are, what we've done, whom we love.
As the 90-minute play progresses, it dives deeper into this subject as a couple other "primes" show up, each one altering and increasing the stakes for everyone involved. And these layers are revealed with devastating precision thanks to the fine four-person cast under the deft direction of Shannon Sindelar.
In the title role, Cleveland theater icon Dorothy Silver captures the full character of this woman with remarkably few words. We see Marjorie's feisty, curmudgeonly side as well as aspects of the impish, sensual woman she once was—even as some memory fragments slip from her grasp. But the most compelling part of Silver's performance happens later, after Marjorie's transition from one state of being into another.
Nicholas Chokan as Walter is friendly and warm, but with a chilly sort of distance that would happen when a person is actually nothing more than a collection of pixels arranged in space. And this reflects one of the themes that Harrison touches on, the idea that all of us carbon-based life forms are nothing more than molecules floating about, asserting our fragile humanity by being able to incorporate memory into our daily lives. Without that, we are just pixels on parade ourselves.
As Tess, Derdriu Ring flashes with the kind of edgy attitude that seems a direct genetic link to Marjorie. And also like her mother, Tess's transition later on feels particularly poignant as she tries to help her husband. Steve Sawicki plays Jon as a seemingly bland, supportive man with just the right amount of ambiguity, never revealing whether Jon is a saint or just trying to make it through the day.
This is one of the rare times when the enormous Dobama stage seems perfectly right for a small play. As designed by Jill Davis, the set is a vast and open expanse, registering both as somewhat futuristic home design while giving the characters—real and "digitally-conjured"—the space to confront their own demons from the past as well as the present.
On one hand, one could wish for a more dramatic confrontation between these people as some of them evolve from one form to another. Surely, such an experience would generate passions of some sort, and those are notably missing in this rather sterile piece.
But the elegance of Harrison's exposition-free writing and the finely modulated performances exert a quiet drama all their own. If you don't find yourself mulling that over as you leave, you'd better check the status of your own humanity.