Imagine a robot that is an exact replica of you with the potential to outlive you by 200 years. That is the premise explored by playwright Thomas Gibbons in his new play, “Uncanny Valley.” The current Capital Stage production, deftly directed by Producing Artistic Director Jonathan Williams, is the fourth rolling world premiere of the play under the National New Play Network, of which Cap. Stage is a participating theatrical organization. (The play debuted at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia last year and then premiered in New York City, Philadelphia and San Diego, before its Cap. Stage run began last weekend.)
The play works on several levels, and its overall impact is, in equal measures, profound, moving, and disturbing. It starts simply enough, with a series of short scenes that introduce the scientist (Claire), whose job it is to “train” the robot in the basic skill-sets of human life. These lessons begin as the robot is still only a head and arm-less torso. With each succeeding scene, however, the robot becomes more life-like until it/he emerges in full, with a specific identity that elevates the tone of the play from curiously intriguing to dramatically engrossing. In the process, the playwright introduces ethical, moral and legal questions that are likely to give rise to conversations that last long after the play has ended.
The cast is limited to two characters, Claire and the robot, whose name ultimately becomes Julian. The interactions between the two all take place in Claire’s workplace (a single room that contains items reflecting her 40-year career as a neuroscientist specializing in artificial intelligence; Julian, we learn, is not her first.) As the dialogue between the two progresses, we learn details of her life and background, and, in time, of his as well. That last point, when it is revealed, gives the play its ultimate gravitas.
The two actors in the current production work well together. As Claire, Jessica Powell could use a little more gray in her hair and a little more nuanced expression of sorrow in the play’s key scenes, but she conveys well the growing uncertainty of her life’s work in the robot she has brought to life. And Michael Patrick Wiles is really terrific in the evolving character of the robot that grows into a real person in the course of the play’s 90-minute single act. He is equally effective in learning how to move his head, raise his eyebrows and smile in the opening scene as he is in gaining an understanding of human emotions in his fully-realized state.
The production is enhanced by the set design (by Stephen C. Jones, who also presumably merits credit for the depiction of the robot before he is fully formed) and the effective use of music (strands of new wave and ethereal segments chosen by Ed Lee).
“Uncanny Valley” is the kind of play Capital Stage exists to produce, and it is not to be missed if you are a fan of sci-fi and/or of contemplations of the human condition as it progresses to non-human form. Mr. Gibbons envisions a futuristic world that already seems entirely realistic. And, as his story suggests, the human element in that future may be more problematic than the robotic one.
Performances of “Uncanny Valley” continue on Wednesday evenings at 7:00, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8:00, and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:00 through July 19. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2215 J St.), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (capstage.org).