By Holli Harms
Our lives are being watched and slowly taken over by the AIs in our homes. Many of us have Alexa and she provides us with information and music and helps with those pesky chores we hate like turning on lights and setting alarm clocks and remembering birthdays. But remember she is listening. Always listening. Listening for her name so that she is ready to be of help, great help.
What if on the other end of Alexa is a “technician” listening as well? Hearing all that you say and do, making sure that Alexa is working at top performance.
This is the case in Smart, the new play by Mary Elizabeth Hamilton playing at Ensemble Studio Theater. Here Alexa is referred to as Jenny and Jenny is brought into the home of an aging mother, Ruth (Christine Farrell) by her daughter, Elaine (Kea Trevett). Elaine is hoping to bring music to Ruth’s world and to have someone there to help keep her company when neither Elaine nor the caretakers are able to be there.
This goes well at first, Jenny is helping Ruth remember words by playing Q&A games. She reminds her to take her medication and plays musicians at Ruth’s request. However, it’s not just Jenny listening but also her IT person, Gabby (Francesca Fernandez). Both are privy not only to Ruth’s game-playing but also to Elaine’s late-night eating binges.
Eventually, through other circumstances, Gabby and Elaine meet and fall for one another and when an incident happens that pushes Gabby to intervene in Ruth’s home via Jenny they must both look at what it means to have someone listening at all times. Privacy versus intervention and safety. After all, Ruth is becoming more and more lost as the days go on and in need of constant attention.
This is a subtle play of family and aging, of grace and love, and of the takeover in our lives of the AIs, the quiet Big Brothers. So quiet we are not really aware of the takeover or of how far it can and will go. It is also the ability of these machines to help the aging and their caretakers. A tenuous balance we will have to discover as we move forward with technology.
The cast is wonderful, presenting beautifully honest performances. Christine Farrell’s Ruth will have you laughing and your heart aching.
The set surrounds us, creating two spaces, Gabby’s minimal home her computer her true and only constant companion, and Ruth’s and Elaine’s home of monochromatic colors full of clutter, furniture, boxes, and lost things much like Ruth’s mind.
So many of us are now having to navigate the lives, health, and remaining days of aging loved ones with patience and care but there are days and moments when the patience is tried again and again by the two-year-old feral stubborn behavior of our loved one that pushes us to want to walk out the door and keep walking. We know it is not anyone’s fault, it is simply for many, part of the aging process, but still, we need support and help. If AI can help should we not take the effort to find out how far we can go with that?
Hamilton gently lays all of it out for us to observe and ponder. To wonder what our choices might be for our future and the future of those we love and live with.
Smart presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation opens Ensemble Studio Theater’s in-person season under a new direction with Co-Artistic Directors, Estefania Fadul and Graeme Gillis and they are looking to present an exciting, diverse, and provocative season. They are off to a great start.
Smart by Mary Elizabeth Hamilton directed by Matt Dickson
With: Christine Farrell, Francesca Fernandez, Kea Trevett, and Sherz Aletaha the voice of Jenny.
Creative Team: Scenic Designer Yi-Hsuan ( Ant) Ma, Costume Designer Megan E. Rutherford, Lighting Designer Colleen Doherty, Sound Designer Josh Samuels, Properties Designer Caitlyn Murphy, Lighting Supervisor Kent Sprague, Stage Manager Fran Acuña-Almiron, Production Stage Manager Lauren Nicole Jackson, Technical Director Steven Brenman
Running to Sunday, April 23 at Ensemble Studio Theatre, 545 W52nd Street, New York, NY
Running Time: 100 minutes with 15-minute intermission.