Prologue Theatre’s flawless ‘Marjorie Prime’ imagines an AI afterlife

A beautiful and definitive production of this Pulitzer-finalist play.

Marjorie Prime is ideally suited for the theatrical medium. In its investigation of transhumanism, it uses theater’s restrictions on what can be physically represented on stage to its advantage: humans look like droids and droids look like humans, and soon the two blend into a strange melded perversion of both. Under Jason Tamborini’s direction at the Prologue Theatre, it’s hard to imagine this play being performed or produced more beautifully.

Written by Jordan Harrison, the Pulitzer-finalist Marjorie Prime chronicles the end and immediate epilogue of the life of octogenarian Marjorie, played by Rosemary Regan, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. We learn through Marjorie’s daughter Tess, played by Kimberly Gilbert, and her son-in-law Jon, played by Sam Lunay, that before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s she was not the easiest to live with: she was demanding, a gossip, and difficult to please. She was also not the most tolerant nor the best at knowing when flirting was appropriate — a whirlwind of a person. We learn this along with Marjorie, who is learning about who she was. Along with Tess and Jon, we also learn this from Walter Prime: a robotic incarnation of Marjorie’s deceased husband in his younger days, played by Gabriel Alejandro.

Rosemary Regan (Marjorie) and Kimberly Gilbert (Tess) in ‘Marjorie Prime.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Kimberly Gilbert’s Tess is one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time. Tess is her daughter’s mother: her anxiety about her mother’s well-being — which comes from a realistic place of both compassion and selfishness — compounds the strife in the home. Gilbert is an incredible actor: Tess does a lot of crying-while-talking in this show and it would have been so easy to accidentally fall into camp or, worse, to make the acting distract from the content. But not only is Gilbert’s physical performance realistic; she makes the character’s more dramatic moments just dramatic enough to perfectly illustrate the play’s central thesis: Gilbert also plays a Prime of Tess, which appears after Tess’ mental challenges after the loss of her mother reach a climax. Gilbert’s tour-de-force is immediately followed by the appearance of Tess Prime, which has removed the uncertainty, volatility, and ultimately the humanity from who Tess was. Tess Prime replaces Tess with an idealized, neutralized version, making her a giggly blank slate of the fiery person she once was.

Rosemary Regan, then, perfectly conveys the character of a woman who was also once ablaze with life now pacified by her condition. Her performance strikes the same notes as Tess Prime: when she returns as Marjorie Prime, she is a pacified version of Marjorie: one who might be kinder and maybe easier to talk to but remains an inescapably twisted corruption of Marjorie herself: simply furthering a process that Alzheimer’s began. Shoehorning this play’s meaning into a single thesis feels almost gauche, but if I were to take a swing, I think it implores us to reconsider creating crude tech-assisted replications of humanity, particularly human intelligence — given that when similar alterations occur naturally, we already regard them as harrowing tragedies worth dreading. When we create those adaptations, they are miracles until — as this cast illustrates — they merely remind us of what we’ve lost. Why would we do that to ourselves?

Scenic Designer Sarah Reed has created a set that combines the antique with the futuristic free of any visible visual or architectural flaws and that also pairs ideally with the work of Lighting Designer Malory Hartman and Electrics Manager Isaac DeMarchi, whose gentle, warm lighting effects between scenes brilliantly capture through light and music from Sound Designer Ian Vespermann the feeling of unconsciousness — there’s a helplessness to the warm lighting as it blinks. It resembles the essence of a fading heartbeat, a dimming light that gently taps in and out, echoing the play’s thesis about partialities of the known that comfort on a surface level but ultimately ring with an unsettling quality about what they lack.

Gabriel Alejandro (Walter), Kimberly Gilbert (Tess), Rosemary Regan (Marjorie), and Sam Lunay (Jon) in ‘Marjorie Prime.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

No significant flaws are readily apparent in this production. Perhaps, while Marjorie Prime and Tess Prime seem to have taken on concretely innocent, curious personalities that reflect on the technology’s insufficiency, Alejandro’s Walter Prime doesn’t illustrate this as much. Of course, the human Walter never appears on stage for us to contrast Walter Prime with. To his credit, though, Alejandro plays Walter Prime’s roboticness with great subtlety, not going full C-3PO in his movements but moving with a nuanced stiffness that feels, appropriately, part-human.

Prologue Theatre has put on an absolutely beautiful production, and it is hard to contemplate a more definitive version of this play. The three or four audience members sitting next to me were sobbing throughout and they were absolutely right.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Marjorie Prime plays through May 19, 2024 (Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm), presented by Prologue Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35, general; $25, seniors, students, teachers, military; $15, theater artists and professionals; Pay What You Can May 11 at 7:30 pm) are available online through Atlas Theater’s Box Office.

The program for Marjorie Prime is online here.

COVID Safety: Masking is recommended but optional.


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