Travel to Uncanny Valley at Stoneham Theatre

12Oct16

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By MARK SARDELLA

On the surface, Uncanny Valley is about a neuroscientist at a life-extension laboratory in the mid-21st century and her relationship with a non-biological human named Julian that she played a major role in creating.

But beneath the surface, Thomas Gibbons’ play, currently at Stoneham Theatre, is about much, much more. The term “uncanny valley” is well-known in the field of robotics. It is the idea that people are fascinated by an artificial being that is almost human-like. But the closer it becomes to being truly human-like, the creepier it becomes.

uncanny_valley_025As the play opens, Claire (played by Nancy E. Carroll), a neuroscientist approaching retirement, is working with the head and shoulders portion of a human-looking figure set on top of a table. She commands the entity that she calls “Julian” to perform a series of simple movements: blinking, smiling, turning his head side to side.

“You’re a natural,” Claire tells Julian (Lewis D. Wheeler).

As the two converse, she explains that Julian has been created to be the equivalent of a highly educated man in his mid-thirties. He’s built to last a few hundred years, she tells him, but with future scientific advances, who knows?

At first, Julian’s movements look mechanical and he speaks in a robotic monotone. But as Claire works with him on his “data parameters” he gradually begins to speak and move in a more natural manner. Claire explains that Julian has been programmed to observe and gather data from interacting with real humans and to incorporate what he has learned into his own characteristics.
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Over a period of days, engineers complete Julian’s physical body, adding arms, a torso and legs.

Eventually, Julian begins to ask Claire questions about her own life. Is she married? Does she have children?

Claire shares that she and her husband Howard have a daughter, Becky, who is estranged from her parents. They haven’t heard from her for more than 10 years. Detecting that this is a sensitive topic, Julian thanks Claire for confiding in him.

“I hope I haven’t made you self-conscious,” he says.

One day, Claire tells Julian the true reason that he has been created. Julian Barber, the aging, super-wealthy founder and chairman of a multinational corporation is dying of pancreatic cancer. But he has decided that he is not ready to die.

uncanny_valley_169He has paid the laboratory hundreds of millions of dollars to create a likeness of himself at age 34. Mr. Barber’s speech characteristics and mannerisms have been translated into algorithms. He has been interviewed extensively by scientists and all of his memories and experiences have been recorded and stored.

Soon, all of that data will be downloaded into his artificial likeness along with his DNA code.

Artistic director Weylin Symes (who also directs Uncanny Valley) has once again demonstrated his knack for selecting provocative and compelling works for the Stoneham Theatre stage. And in this play, he has cast two of Boston’s premier professional actors.

Wheeler skillfully walks a thin line between robot and person. He doesn’t overdo the robotic characteristics while not letting us forget that Julian is not quite human.

uncanny_valley_192Nancy E. Carroll delivers a convincing performance as brilliant and confident pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence who begins to question the implications of her life’s work.

The play is in one respect an exploration of parenthood, both on an actual and metaphorical level. It also poses some uncomfortable questions: Just because we have the ability to do something, does that mean we should do it? Can an artificial being be truly conscious? Would we really want to live forever? And what becomes of children when parents never die?

Welcome to the uncanny valley.

Uncanny Valley runs through Oct. 23 at Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham. For tickets, go to stonehamtheatre.org or phone 781-279-2200.

[Uncanny Valley, by Thomas Gibbons. Directed by Weylin Symes. Scenic Design, Crystal Talia. Lighting Design, Chris Fournier. Costume Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt. Sound Design, David Remedios. Production Stage Manager, Rachel Policare.]

Photos by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots

[This review originally appeared in the October 11, 2016 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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One Response to “Travel to Uncanny Valley at Stoneham Theatre”

  1. 1 Arlene Feltz

    I thought the play was excellent!


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