Consider an artificial intelligence designed to help patients with dementia remember key details and stories from their lives, created to comfortingly look like a beloved family member. By virtue of its design, the AI can then also help those in the grieving process by giving people who have lost a loved one a sounding board of sorts to reflect on their loss and the memory of the individual who passed.
While this may sound like a real technological innovation, it’s actually the driving force behind the latest show at Fort Worth’s Stage West, “Marjorie Prime,” opening Jan. 18.
“Marjorie Prime” takes place in 2053 and follows Marjorie, a woman experiencing the rapid onset of dementia symptoms. Marjorie, who is under the care of her daughter and son-in-law, ends up participating in the aforementioned AI program called Prime. She chooses a younger version of her deceased husband, Walter, as her AI-represented hologram for the program.
From there, the lines between what’s real and artificial start to become blurred as Marjorie tells ‘Walter Prime’ details about their life together so he can repeat them when necessary, choosing what memories she would like intact and which she would like altered. Soon, the AI becomes more and more curious about the real man it represents, and family secrets begin to unravel, revealing the strained relationships in Marjorie’s family.
“What I’m taking away from it is that we have evolved technologically to the point where deeply human needs are trying to be comforted by technology,” Stage West “Marjorie Prime” Director Sasha Maya Ada said. “Instead of streamlining things like checking out at a grocery store, you now have the connection between things like grief and joy that technology is trying to help humans through.”
Ada said that the show, although rooted in that futuristic realm, is still “deeply human.” She explained that she was excited to take on the challenges presented in a show as complex and emotional as “Marjorie Prime,” referring to its sci-fi themes as a departure from much of her past work grounded in real experiences.
“I was interested in exploring a new genre of theatre. The sci-fi is really exciting to me,” Ada said, adding that she will also tackle another science fiction story in a production coming this fall. “A lot of my work deals with heavy race things. I am a Black woman. I tell Black stories, and I was excited to go, okay, here’s something sort of removed from that where I don’t need to necessarily base the process in that awareness. It lives in a different world, layered on to the fact of how challenging this show is.”
She referred to “Marjorie Prime” as “a complex web” that she feels she can now tackle given her experience directing.
“Sasha (Maya Ada) has done an excellent job at feeding us (this story) properly. She didn’t dump the whole feast on the table to begin with. She’s been giving it to us in courses,” Cindee Mayfield, who stars as Marjorie in the production, said. She described how Ada has helped the cast work through the layers of storytelling and nuances in their performances, especially given the fact that the show includes nearly human versions of otherwise realistic characters.
It’s an in-depth process that Mayfield came to star in under a unique set of circumstances.
“I didn’t audition. I thought I was way too young,” Mayfield said with a laugh, describing how she had previously worked with Ada on a different production prior to “Marjorie Prime.” “I was actually in St. Louis taking care of my 97-year-old mother who was in this situation (similar to Marjorie), and they called and said, ‘Would you do a Zoom audition?’ and I said, ‘Okay, do you think I’m really that old?’”
Mayfield said Ada saw in her what she felt she needed for the role from an acting standpoint, despite the age difference. She compared her transformation into Marjorie for the role to typical theater work and illusion, explaining it as “a little change in voice and movement, giving up trying to look pretty on stage and a little gray in the hair, and we’re just gonna go for it.”
She brought in mannerisms she saw from taking care of her mother to the role, with Ada working with her to help find an appropriate balance and tone for the character.
“It is a challenge,” Mayfield said of performing as Marjorie in the production given her mother’s own health situation.
Ada and Mayfield hope that the show serves as a conversation starter, not only about the direction technology is heading and its influence on our lives but also about healing in personal relationships.
Ada hopes the show encourages people to take the time to “connect with the person that perhaps they haven’t been able to connect with” and “say I love you to the people that they haven’t been able to say I love you to.”
“We can rely on Alexa, we can rely on all these things, but if we don’t take those steps to be actively involved in the lives of the people we love, we’re gonna lose it. They’re going to be things left unsaid,” Mayfield said.
The Stage West production of “Marjorie Prime” runs from Jan. 18 to Feb. 11 at Stage West Theatre in Fort Worth. For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit https://stagewest.org/marjorie-prime.
These interviews have been edited for clarity.