Thomas Gibbons’ play “Uncanny Valley” dives deep into timeless questions about the core of humanity, all with only two actors, 90 minutes and a dash of expertly placed humor.
Open Stage of Harrisburg’s production, which opened Friday night, kept me engaged as the perfectly portrayed characters, Claire and Julian, dove deeper and deeper into this intellectual territory.
The play’s opening scene shocked me, which kept me on my toes throughout the play. The humanlike robot Julian (Jeff Luttermoser) appeared as a clean-shaven head popping out of desk in the plain office space belonging to the scientist Claire (Anne Alesdek). She showed Julian the nuances to human movement, as the robotic Julian attempted to move his head side to side.
Luttermoser rose to the challenge of playing a robot, and his well-executed jolts and bumps mesmerized me. Alsedek’s character required less obvious physical demands and a subtler portrayal of Claire’s sadness, which I understood in Alsedek performance from the first scene.
This dynamic and chemistry between Luttermoser and Alsedek are at the crux of this play.
An older woman nearing retirement, Claire—complete with a cardigan—immediately juxtaposed the youth and accompanying curiosity spouting from the newly created robot. As the performance progressed, I realized the characters are near-perfect foils, which added depth to my understanding of the show and its questions.
Then, the scene cuts to dark. I heard the beep, beeping and breathing of a respirator. The stage suddenly is illuminated to reveal that more of Julian—his torso—has risen from the desk.
This transition had the potential to be jolty, but I loved its effect on the play’s pace. It allowed the play to reveal nuggets of suspense. I always attempt to guess how a story ends, and this well-delivered performance kept me guessing.
Each time we met Julian after the lights returned, another section of his body was revealed until the audience met a standing, walking Julian.
His childlike curiosity gave ample opportunity for humor. However, more than just the silly questions children ask adults, Julian and Claire’s well-delivered humor develops a brilliant dynamic in their relationship from the onset. Alsedek and Luttermoser’s on-stage chemistry builds throughout the performance until the end’s thought-provoking and surprising crescendo.
As Julian physically grew and Claire taught him about humanity, his seemingly innocent questions to Claire became surprisingly targeted at the root of human existence. He questions emotions, consciousness and his purpose all to understand his own existence as a robot attempting to become a human.
When he receives an arm, he asks to touch Claire’s face and hair, when he realizes that Claire’s human body comes complete with scars. Julian’s perfectly engineered existence has no such scars. He summarizes his thoughts with this poignant line, “If I fall short, it’s because I lack your scars.”
Julian’s curiosity into Claire’s life shows that Claire has more scars than just physical ones. Like Julian looking for his purpose as a robot trying to be human, Claire looks for meaning as she nears the end of a distinguished career and grapples with family problems.
This play was a great way to spend an evening, but I recommend having an after-show dinner or drink so you can ponder life’s deep questions afterward.
A one-act play, “Uncanny Valley” is directed by Donald Alsedek, founder and producing artistic director of Open Stage. “Uncanny Valley” runs until May 7 at Open Stage of Harrisburg. For more information and tickets, visit www.openstagehbg.com.