BWW Review: Open Stage's Canny UNCANNY VALLEY
"The measure of a man is not how great his faith is, but how great his love is." The quote begins with the presumption of humanity - but what is humanity? For that matter, what is a parent, and how do we bring life into the world? Thomas Gibbons' UNCANNY VALLEY addresses these through the lens of what might or might not be science fiction, but is more of a legitimate psychological test for the characters and the audience. The term "uncanny valley" itself refers to rising psychological discomfort as the physical construct for Artificial Intelligence appears close to, but not quite, human. Your Roomba vacuum may amuse you and the cat, but an android is something quite else.
Not to be confused with the jarringly closely titled THE UNHAPPY VALLEY: A PLAY FOR TWO HUMANS AND ONE ROBOT, which was first produced in Brooklyn, Gibbons' UNCANNY VALLEY, which appeared at the 2014 Contemporary American Theater Festival, is a two-hander involving Claire, an Artificial Intelligence professional near retirement, whose culminating work is the creation of Julian, a lifelike - or is he living? - artificial being designed to resemble an elderly, dying businessman who wishes to transfer his life and memories into its new body. The philosophical, moral, and personal questions that Julian's development raises are on display at Open Stage of Harrisburg, where Anne Alsedek and Jeff Luttermoser bring the characters' struggles on stage.
Of the two, Luttermoser has the more arduous physical task of acting, as the android body is constructed on stage scene by scene, an arm here, a leg there, the challenges of learning to think, to walk, and to behave as a human needing to be mounted realistically before an audience. Luttermoser is up to the task, and to maintaining the character's humor (much of it, for the character, unintended as it learns to speak and think colloquially), in a very solid way. His physical and speaking transformations are engaging to watch, and the transition from blank-slate Julian to the Julian who is aware of himself as the person he replaces is fascinating to watch as handled by Luttermoser. Science fiction buffs may liken it to the development of the character facets of Data by Brent Spiner on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.
Alsedek is a joy to watch perform as the burdened AI researcher dealing with a career she can't entirely discuss, a husband with Alzheimer's, and a new AL, Julian, who is far more self-aware, and increasingly so, than any other construct she's developed. As she works with the original blank-slate Julian, it's clear both that she is imprinting on him maternally, and that she's developing her own maternal bond with her creation. It's understood that Julian will forget her when the human Julian's thoughts, memories, and knowledge are transferred to him, and that in completing her tasks fully, she's giving up a son of sorts. But Julian is just a little too self-aware, it seems, and remembers Claire as well as he remembers the late Julian's sons, who refuse to accept him as their father, and that they can't inherit their father's business if his artificial replica is indeed their father.
Is Julian human? If humanity is self-awareness, he's very self-aware. If it's having compassion, he both has it and knows, as a businessman, when not to have it. If it's awareness of one's own mortality, then Julian the artificial construct is something more, as he's created to outlive "his" children. And yet he's something less, an artificial building that serves as a museum of one human mind while applying that mind in service to continuing the late Julian's business. Can his late purchaser's family accept him as their father and business patriarch? Can he accept his own status, being aware of having one foot on each side of the human and non-human divide? And can Claire learn to let go, but to accept him back in her life as well? Because of his unusual complexity, he possesses both a compassion and an empathy that Claire is afraid to accept once he turns them towards her personal problems.
Alsedek is truly wonderful to watch in this, a part that is certainly a score for an older actress, but that isn't a part that is necessarily easy to perform just because of being "old enough to do it," just as Lear isn't a part suited to an actor simply because he's no longer young. Alsedek, if anything, appears to improve with age, and it's discomfiting to realize that, with her and her husband, director Donald Alsedek, stepping down from the Open Stage administration, she's also decided to retire from the stage now. If Alsedek is determined to give the stage a rest, she's going out on a high note.
The complexity of Julian, the android, is met and raised by the complexity of what is really a two-person conversation throughout the show. The underlying questions of what constitutes humanity, what constitutes self-awareness, and what constitutes love are never answered fully, but are up to the audience to take on; similarly, the secondary questions of what it means to know you will outlive your family, and a family's reaction to discovering that no one will ever inherit from their father if the constructed body that houses his mind is a living being, are also left unresolved for the audience.
The one thing that is settled, though never stated, is that a bond between Claire and Julian that shouldn't have been possible to have nonetheless clearly exists, and their bond is incomprehensible as anything other than a love that Julian doesn't even feel for "his" children.
To say that UNCANNY VALLEY is moving is to negate the actual scope of feeling in the play. The audience identifies with Claire as the human with issues, and lives with her through job satisfactions, job challenges, a growing awareness that her current project isn't exactly what she expected, that her husband is facing his own aging issues, and that her daughter separated from the family years ago with no contact since then, and that she's replacing her child with her construct. We see Julian through Claire's eyes - first as a childlike creature and then as one far beyond what she expected, who shouldn't be able to live with awareness of two separate existences in his body.
It is challenging, it is painful, it is beautiful, it is poetic. And in the midst of it, there's an intangible fear of what we don't understand and whether it will come to replace us. Are we, as Mary Shelley suggested, our own modern Prometheus? Are we walking into our futures knowingly or blindly? Stephen Hawking has suggested that Artificial Intelligence could indeed destroy mankind, and did so the same year that UNCANNY VALLEY was first produced, both ideas running independently of each other. We may have seen the future, and it may be Julian.
Provocative, challenging, absorbing, and gorgeously acted. At Open Stage in Harrisburg through May 7. Visit openstagehbg.com.