We are midway into a new technological age. Concert promoters are mixing holograms of deceased vocalists as diverse as Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson and Maria Callas with live performers. And you’ve probably had exchanges with automated chatbots, either online or on the phone.
And now we have a play about artificial intelligence and holograms.
Sacramento’s Capital Stage is presenting “Marjorie Prime,” a near-future drama about an elderly widow, whose family provides her with a holographic version of her late husband, equipped with artificial intelligence and capable of conversation.
The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2015. It takes what is happening now and projects the trend just a decade or two into the future, in the context of a family in crisis. It poses many probing questions about how we increasingly use AI in our personal lives.
In the opening scenes, we meet Marjorie, a frail 85-year-old, who is experiencing memory lapses and other indignities stemming from her age.
The middle-aged family members look after Marjorie, but they also have jobs and careers. So the family gets Marjorie a computer-generated companion – a hologram that looks just like Marjorie’s late husband. Specifically, the 30-something Walter that Marjorie married. And as one family member observes, the high-tech Walter becomes more and more like the “real thing” as the artificial intelligence guiding the hologram interacts with the family.
Jon (50-ish husband of Tess): That’s just how it works. The more you talk, the more it absorbs.
Tess (50-ish daughter of Marjorie): Until we become unnecessary, is that how it goes?
Jon: That’s science fiction …
Tess: Science fiction is here, Jonathan. Every day is science fiction. We buy these things that already know our moods, or what we want for lunch, even though we don’t know ourselves. And we listen to them, we do what we’re told. Or in this case, we tell them our deepest secrets, even though we have no earthly idea how they work. We treat them like our loved ones?
Things start to get crazy when Marjorie begins revising the family history, telling her technological companion about past events the way she wished they had occurred, which isn’t necessarily how things actually happened.
And Marjorie’s daughter starts to wonder whether the high-tech companion actually engages her mom’s personality, or simply pacifies her with comforting chat from a familiar face. The daughter’s husband wryly suggests that something else may be going on as well.
Jon: Are you jealous?
Tess: What? No!
Jon: You are!
Tess: Am I not supposed to notice that she’s being nicer to that thing than to me?
Jon: It’s your father that she’s being nice to.
Tess: It is not my father.
The dubious nature of technology in this near-future drama gets creepier as the plot develops – but I won’t give away the details. Rather, I’ll just urge you to try this unusual four-character drama about events on our society’s horizon, which is beautifully directed by Stephanie Gularte, with fine performances by the cast, including Capital Stage regulars Janis Stevens and Jamie Jones.
The show is barely 90 minutes long, but it poses a host of haunting questions about our lives today and in years to come, situations that you will reflect on long after you’ve left the theater.
The futuristic drama “Marjorie Prime” continues through June 3 at Capital Stage in Sacramento.