Note: Entire Contents Copyright 2016 by Michele Markarian
Claire (Nancy E. Carroll) is a neuroscientist at a life extension laboratory whose job is to train the robots created there to approximate humans. The laboratory’s latest creation, Julian (Lewis D. Wheeler) is an apt pupil, learning so quickly that he appears to be almost empathetic. Soon they develop a rapport and Claire is confiding in him, telling him stories from her personal life and the people in it - her fellow scientist husband, Max, her estranged daughter, Rebecca. She also tells Julian that he has actually been developed to take on the DNA of a dying 76 year old billionaire, Julian Barbour, who is not yet willing to relinquish life. The billionaire has requested that his living robot be himself at the age of 34, which is further complicated by the fact that he has a 44 year old son.
Clones, robots, facsimiles of humans – this is timely fodder for drama right now. As Claire’s laboratory creation, Julian A, undergoes a DNA download so that he can become Julian Barbour (Julian B), something like a Julian C emerges – a combination of the two. And somewhere along the line, Claire the dispassionate scientist becomes far too emotionally invested in her laboratory robot, as when he tells her (prior to his DNA download) that he is the cup into which she will pour Julian Barbour. “No, don’t say that, please! You’re much more than that!” she pleads with him. Over the next ninety minutes, the uncanny valley, the gulf that can’t be bridged between real humans and their robotic facsimiles, widens and closes and widens and closes between them.
“Uncanny Valley’ raises some interesting questions – is a simulated emotion the same as a real one? What does it mean to be conscious? Do robots have rights? And what of Julian’s progeny, who now has a father – and not always a very nice one, from what we are given to understand – who is not only younger than he, but will outlive him? Claire, who has always believed in the value of her work, now has doubts, as it dawns on her what the ramifications are for facsimile Julian and his son.
Lewis D. Wheeler is outstanding in the role of Julian. His gestures as the nascent Julian are appropriately awkward, as is his orientation to the world around him. When he re-enters as clone Julian, it is with confidence and seeming arrogance. His connection to Claire, his laboratory mother, is one of concern and solicitude, maybe a little too much for Claire’s liking, who seems concerned that her latest experiment might not be the nicest of men.
Nancy E. Carroll, as Claire, does a terrific job of conveying both a detached and passionate attitude towards her creation. Claire is a much a harder role to play, as her objectives are not as clearly defined as Julian’s (although as parents, Claire and the billionaire Julian may have more in common than she thinks). It’s not clear how much Claire has had a hand in driving her daughter away, but when she expresses dismay after having to see her again after a twelve-year absence, a woman in the audience actually groaned in disgust. “Uncanny Valley”, thanks to Weylin Symes’s direction, moves swiftly, with stagehands dressed as lab technicians to ease the transitions during the blackouts. Be prepared for a discussion with your theater companion afterwards – “Uncanny Valley” is a lot of digest. For more info, go to: https://www.stonehamtheatre.org