Marjorie (Vana O’Brien) is a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease. At age 85, she is fairly advanced in the disease. She is unable to care for herself. She’s lost interest in eating. She’s lonely. And she constantly repeats herself, asking questions, driving her daughter Tess (Linda Alper) and son-in-law Jon (Michael Mendelson) nuts.
But in Jordan Harrison’s play Marjorie Prime, there is someone who can take over and make life better for everyone. That someone is (ta-da!) Walter (Chris Harder). A colder little piece of work you’ve never met. Oh, he comes across very civilized, kind, indulgent even. He prompts Marjorie on the things she needs to know and stories from her past, answers those endless questions without losing patience, feeds her peanut butter. He even looks like a younger version of her deceased husband Walter. Interacts with the relatives, too. But don’t be fooled. Walter is a robot, a “prime”–a computer-programmed, pixel-generated companion.
Watching Marjorie Prime, now playing at Artists Repertory Theatre and directed by Adriana Baer, is a little like reading Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. This is a suburban fantasy thriller that challenges the audience who are racing to keep up. And, like The Stepford Wives, it’s creepy.
I personally don’t like the idea of a robot taking care of me and feeding me peanut butter in my dotage. And I obviously didn’t take to Walter. He’s good looking but soulless, and in this role Chris Harder does an excellent job of mixing that affable, human-like being with the more mechanical aspects of Walter.
The part I really didn’t like, however, is that the technology exists for robotic caregivers. Already, memory care centers are having success cheering up patients with robotic cats. Do the patients know the cats aren’t real? Perhaps, perhaps not. The point is, elderly residents of care facilities barely receive the level of care they need, much less companionship, from overworked staff who under state law are allowed to care for up to 12 people at a time. A few well-placed robots could ease the burden, or even help infirm elderly stay in their homes longer. So, it’s probably a good thing, right? But what about the souls? Don’t humans need other souls?
Marjorie Prime offers a timely and thought-provoking look at what could be our near future, with enough twists and turns to make it a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. Once again Vana O’Brien outdoes herself, breathing life, dignity, and grit into the physically and mentally failing Marjorie while Linda Alper as the mentally unstable Tess, Michael Mendelson as the long-suffering Jon, and Chris Harder as Walter conspire around her. Prepare to be amazed. The play may be seen at Artists Repertory Theatre through March 5.