If thinking about artificial intelligence or the idea of downloading human consciousness freaks you out, or if you’re prone to free-floating anxiety, Uncanny Valley probably isn’t for you. The questions Thomas Gibbons’ play raises about science, immortality and playing God are ominous ones.
But you really shouldn’t be unnerved by this futuristic one-act, directed by Jessica Bird at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. (The Rep is one of four theaters nationally simultaneously giving Uncanny Valley its world premiere.) For all its seemingly incomprehensible explorations into the furthest possibilities of cybernetic life extension, Gibbons’ play is clever, affecting and human at its core.
The consistently superb Rosina Reynolds portrays a veteran neuroscientist named Claire who is shepherding the transition of a non-biological being called Julian from manmade robot into the “resurrected” existence of a dying millionaire. The first half of Uncanny Valley, which co-stars Nick Cagle as Julian, finds Claire teaching the aforementioned non-biological being how to move, speak and react like a 34-year-old man. Julian already seems capable of thinking for himself, and it doesn’t even feel as if Claire is talking to a robot.
In the second half of the play, after the dead millionaire’s human consciousness has been downloaded into Julian, Uncanny Valley takes a sharp left turn and becomes a cautionary tale that’s as much about greed, ungrateful children and looming conscience as it is about the far reaches of neuroscience. It’s the evolution of Claire’s and Julian’s relationship, fraught with all of these consequences, that makes Uncanny Valley the engrossing theater that it is. Claire’s “What have I done?” moment may be predictable, but it still packs a wallop when it comes.
In case you’re wondering, the concept of the “uncanny valley” (coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori) refers to the queasiness, even fear, we experience in the presence of almost-human-like robots or computer animations. We’re amused or even charmed by C3PO or Wall-E, but Uncanny Valley’s Julian, transformed from machine into man with all his calculations and imperfections, is too close to real for comfort.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat