by Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
Playing at San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Space through May 10, Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley” is an absolutely delicious play, acted superbly by Rosina Reynolds and Nick Cagle, directed astutely and with heart by Jessica Bird.
Designed to the nth, the clothes (Michelle Hunt Souza) and the set (Robin Sanford Roberts) delight the eye, especially as enhanced by lighting designer Kristin Swift Hayes and sound designer Kevin Anthenill. Souza creates the perfect shade for Reynolds’ all-weather trench coat and handbag and the perfect cut for Cagle’s suit, although they are no doubt more than slightly retro because the play takes place in “The Not Too Distant Future.”
Claire (Reynolds) is no novice at creating human intelligence; she was a pioneer and remains a leader in the field. Julian (Cagle) is her latest model, and as the play opens she is training him to see, discern individuals, and to react appropriately in social situations.
Though at first Julian has no arms and legs, Claire eventually teaches him to use those limbs as well as his limber mind. The audience on Sunday, April 19, seemed as enthralled with Julian’s development as Claire is.
The scientist is totally taken by her creation and seems to be reluctant to let him go; he has become her confidant, especially in regard to parenting. Julian, although anatomically correct, does not expect to procreate. The topics they discuss — the calculating, ambitious scientist and her calculating created being — are quandaries common to humankind. The surprises are equally human.
One surprise is caring more for Julian than for Claire, despite the problems that assail her. The playwright insists there are three Julians: the one Claire created; the one who resulted from her training; and the Julian he becomes after leaving the laboratory.
For fear of spoiling the play for you, no more will be said about the plot; however, it is not surprising that “Uncanny Valley” is such a hit around the country.
With her air of condescension, Reynolds embodies the woman who has sacrificed everything for her career. Cagle, so impressive in La Jolla Playhouse’s “Peer Gynt” a while back, uses all his mimetic and physical skills to great effect, and somehow, at the same time, manages gradually to create someone we’d like to meet and get to know.
The term “uncanny valley” — and I crib from the program notes — was coined in 1970 by Masahiro Mori to describe our strange revulsion toward things that appear nearly human, but not quite right … he realized that designing his robots to have vaguely human qualities made them more likable, but getting too close to resembling actual humans was off-putting and even disturbing.
The Rep’s production of “Uncanny Valley” — a National New Play Network rolling world premiere — makes clear why all these fears exist; moreover, it plumbs the philosophy of what it is to feel and be human.
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenebaldridge.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.