(St. Petersburg, FL) March 10, 2018 – “‘More human than human’ is our motto.” This iconic line was spoken by Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the creator of lifelike, yet artificial human beings called replicants in the 1982 visionary science fiction film “Blade Runner.” It’s extremely prophetic, considering how artificial intelligence (A.I.) seems to evolve in many wonderful and frightening ways. Playwright and screenwriter Jordan Harrison explores these issues in his play “Marjorie Prime,” a Pulitzer Prize Award finalist that is making its Tampa Bay debut at American Stage. A thought-provoking story of what makes a human being “human” and what makes an A.I….well, become similar to its creators, it clocks in at a lean 75 minutes. But the production at the St. Petersburg venue shines, courtesy of its artists. Director Stephanie Gularte and her powerful cast help elevate an underdeveloped play into a small theatrical gem.
In the distant future, artificial intelligence technology has boomed with the invention of primes: holographic projections of deceased individuals that are used to help surviving family members cope and recover from their loss. But for the married couple Jon (Steven Sean Garland) and Tess (Jamie Jones), the Prime program is used to help Tess’s aging mother Marjorie (Janis Stevens) remember her past (she suffers from advanced dementia). The Prime hologram is in the form of Walter (Brock D. Vickers), Marjorie’s deceased husband. What unsettles Tess is Walter Prime is designed to appear as her father when he was in his 30s, and that his personality is frighteningly…human. Jon, on the other hand, likes the holographic doppelgänger because it keeps retelling stories of “their” past—both factual and exaggerated—to Marjorie in order to maintain her optimistic morale, even though her memory degrades with each passing day. Eventually, this tight-knit family uses the Prime technology in other ways. To say any more would give away spoilers. But it is this turn of events that brings so much of the play’s potential as a thought-provoking science fiction tale.
Harrison’s grasp of character, plot, thematic tension, and dialogue is extremely proficient. But what makes the play frustrating is that it isn’t longer than its runtime. For American Stage’s season opener, “The Royale,” the duration was 70 minutes. But playwright Marco Ramirez was wise in keeping it that length because it focused only on the conflict of one character and how his actions impact all who know him. For “Marjorie Prime,” Harrison explores complex themes such as the fragility of humanity, the virtues and perils of A.I. technology, family dynamics and the power of memory. This subject matter requires considerably more time than one hour and 15 minutes. Does it need to be the same expansive length as the two-hour, 43 minute epic “Blade Runner 2049?” Absolutely not. But expanding the length another 15 minutes to a modest 90 minute run time (with no intermission) would have significantly made the story less abridged, especially the second to the last scene of the play where Garland’s Jon needed more completion with his character arc. As is, to go from that scene to the play’s finale—which is thematically and technically superb, thanks to Chris Baldwin’s lighting design—leaves the script disappointingly underdeveloped.
However, the reason why I would label “Marjorie Prime” as a recommended production to see and especially experience is Stephanie Gularte’s tightly fluidic direction and the skilled performances of the actors. Along with Scenic Designer Jerid Fox, Gularte creates a stylistic futuristic atmosphere without it being sterile. The scenes flow with ease, thanks to her sound design and the naturalistic pacing from the actors, each of whom give phenomenal portrayals with ALL their roles; to go into more detail about each actor’s strengths and nuances would spoil a subtle twist that occurs at the middle of the play.
Although not the best show of American Stage’s 2017/2018 season (mainly due to the script and NOT the production), “Marjorie Prime” maintains the theatre’s track record in presenting four satisfactory plays in a row. Hopefully, “Strait of Gibraltar” and “Bad Jews” will equal, if not surpass, its predecessors, resulting in a perfect season for the St. Petersburg-based theatre company.
Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, and playwright.
Marjorie Prime runs from March 7 – April 1, 2018
163 3rd St N.
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Photos by Kara Goldberg