by Beki Pineda

UNCANNY VALLEY – – Written by Thomas Gibbons; Directed by Rachel Rogers. Produced by Benchmark Theatre (1560 Teller, Lakewood) through October 13. Tickets available at benchmarktheatre.com.

Remember the expression “You only have one chance to make a first impression”? This applies in a strange way to this production. You only have one opportunity to see this script enacted for the first time and to feel the dynamics of the situation slowly wash over you. You have one opportunity to form first impressions about Claire, the neuroscientist who is grooming and instructing Julian in becoming more human-like. Julian is a highly sophisticated robot whose lessons in personhood are like watching an adult baby make his first unsteady steps. Starting as only a head and shoulders on a table, he has additional parts added until we finally observe him making his actual first steps. In the meantime, under the tutelage of Claire, he learns how to shake hands, play the guitar, differentiate, reason, question . . . . all those things that create personality. Through his burgeoning curiosity, we learn of Claire’s life outside the laboratory, her concerns about her aging husband, and her relationship with her daughter.

That’s all depicted in Act One.  In Act Two, the novelty of watching Julian grow and change is over. Motives for this experiment are revealed and the crux of the story unfolds. But your first impression would be ruined if I posted my own feelings about what happens next. It truly belongs to what you bring to the table – what your personal feelings are about how lives are meant to be lived and how people are meant to behave. Suffice it to say that twenty people could watch Act Two unfold and they would probably walk away with twenty different impressions of what the playwright wanted to convey. Just trust me that throughout the remainder of the production, your synapsis are crackling and you are thoroughly engaged in discovery. But you have to come see the show for yourself to get ‘the rest of the story’ – you won’t get it from me. If ever a play screamed for an Act Three, this is it.

Gibbons’ brilliant script is given true life – in every sense of the word – by the talents of Anne Myers as Claire and new (to me) player Neil Truglio as Julian. Anne’s calm, measured teacher and ultimate friend is refreshing and realistic  The revelations about her life outside the lab seem to come at great personal cost. Her final conversation with Julian leaves doubt all over the floor and cloaks her in trepidation. This performance surpasses even the brilliant work she did recently in VERONICA’S ROOM at Vintage. Neil is a new face to me, but I can’t wait to see what he will do next. The gradual transition from robotic to humanoid was perfection with just enough of the robot left in his movements and voice throughout Act Two to never let you forget that he was not truly human  An amazing performance not soon forgotten.

Benchmark’s reading committee deserves kudos for finding this script and pushing it on their stage. Director Rachel Rogers took it and made it her own, guiding her actors into these perfect performances. Christopher Waller’s office/lab set gives us the immediate impression of an all-business woman who also has a rich and fulfilling life full of family and travel. The original music by John Hauser enhanced the mood and led you gently into the next scene. Everyone involved with this production has every reason to be patting themselves on the back. You created a little jewel of a theatre evening.

Knowing that this kind of experimentation is actually going on as we speak lends weight to the revelations. It adds a whole separate layer of Why’s? and What If’s? to your after-show thinking. Benchmark is fast becoming the go-to theatre for discerning play-goers who like challenging, thought-provoking theatre. That’s you, isn’t it?

A WOW FACTOR of 9.5!!