Recently, promoting his new movie The Big Sick on The Daily Show, Kumail Nanjiani talked about working with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, as a co-writer on a film based on the first year of their own relationship. He related an anecdote about composing a date scene to account for the fact that he remembered having a great time, and she remembered having a terrible time, if you imagine that same disjunction, but instead of a rom-com scenario, it is that of a conscious person being created, you will arrive at one of the central conflicts in Patrick Vermillion's Jessica. Jessica, crisply directed by Emily Jackson, is the 2017 winner of Sanguine Theatre's annual Project Playwright, an open-submission contest in which scenes from finalist plays are performed and the audience selects which work receives a full production. Vermillion's winning work joins a rich tradition of speculative fiction in exploring what artificial minds can tell us about our own.
Artificial intelligence permeates our cultural conversation these days, from the anticipation surrounding the impending return of HBO's rebellious theme-park androids in Westworld to Elon Musk calling unregulated A.I. a "fundamental existential risk for human civilization" in a July interview. By coincidence, even the last play we reviewed for this site, Lasha Bugadze's Navigator in Love, featured conscious technology. While Navigator is at heart more of a character study of its protagonist, Jessica leans more heavily into the philosophical questions raised by its premise, though not at the expense of being any less entertaining or human. The "Jessica" of the title refers to a young woman who disappeared four years prior to the play's opening. It equally refers to Jessica (Alli Trussell) the android replica that Allister (Michael Patrick Trimm), her boyfriend at the time of her disappearance, has hired the Lyfe corporation to construct. Overseen by Lyfe's Rudi (Will Sarratt), Allister and Jessica's best friend since toddlerhood, Mari (Anna Nemetz), are populating android-Jessica's neural network with important memories by reenacting them with her. Allotter has pitched creating this new version of Jessica as a way to solve the mystery of her having vanished -- with the same memories up to her disappearance and the same way of thinking, the theory goes, she could perhaps recreate what happened next. Despite this possibility, Allister still has to cajole Mari into staying and helping out, and soon enough, he has to admit that they also need Jessica's sister Lillian (Alison Scaramella), with whom she had a strained relationship, in order to complete the project. As this completion looms, questions about what success would look like and what its implications would be, for them and for both Jessicas, sharpen into focus.
Jessica name-checks two stories from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, loosely connected narratives about human colonization of Mars and the uncanny results: "There Will Come Soft Rains," in which an automated house continues to tend to its tasks even after its inhabitants have been incinerated in a nuclear holocaust, and "Usher II," in which visitors to a Poe-themed haunted house on Mars are murdered until only their robot doppelgängers remain. It also references (as if it could be avoided) Philip K. Dick's story of bounty hunters and android fugitives, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," the inspiration for Blade Runner (itself newly relevant via a forthcoming sequel 35 years after the original). Eschewing the physical violence of these touchstones, Jessica carves out its niche in inquiries about the consciousness, and any violence is emotional, although it does raise the issue, through the question of whether a body is really necessary for Allister's stated purpose, of whether the self is always and inevitably embodied.
One of the most important questions that Mari (and, by extension, the play) asks (and that the generally entitled, overbearing Allister does not) is whether the human-Jessica did or does in fact want to be found. This consideration is central to a nexus of issues regarding bodily and mental autonomy, control, and privacy. Android replicas, for example, do not need even to enter the picture for the amount of information that Rudi, like any number of individuals and corporations, can extract about people from the internet to be concerning. On a more speculative plane, if android Jessica is to be a conscious being, who decides what memories are included and important? Allister may be biasing her memories in his favor, but is this justified by the fact that he owns her? (If she reaches self-awareness, can he own her?) Is something such as her depression inseparable from who she "is" or something distinct to be excised? And if it is something to be removed, can anyone other than she herself ethically make that decision anyway? As these questions play out on a set dominated by the Lyfe logo and composed of clean, modern lines and cool blues, grays, greens, it becomes clear that they mirror the characters' relationships with the human Jessica as well--in for example, Allister's one-sided conviction that Jessica is his soulmate.
"Life" is, appropriately, just a bit off from "life," and for much of the play, Alli Trussell hits just the right subtle off notes to make Jessica uncanny -- sitting, hands on knees, just a little too poised; pausing just a half-second too long in her speech, as if accessing the correct response. When she can become more natural later, the difference, though small, is usefully striking. Will Sarratt gets most of the biggest laughs as the dryly sarcastic Rudi, whose investment in the process of creating Jessica goes further beyond the intellectual than he likes to project. Mari is more obviously, deeply, and complexly conflicted, and Anna Nemetz adeptly realizes her ethical and emotional struggles. Alison Scaramella sketches a believably thorny sibling relationship, especially in an affecting scene in which she pours out her resentments on android-Jessica, and Michael Patrick Trimm leaves just enough room for sympathy for wealthy, demanding Allister.
The need for closure infuses Jessica. However, knowing or not knowing the cause of Jessica's disappearance would arguably end up with largely the same effect. Even knowing the answer to the mystery might not, like the android approximation, be able to give the characters what precisely they are looking for. It is possible that even Jessica herself couldn't fully answer the question of her disappearance. What is certain is that we are only ever privy to pieces of one another. There are always some aspects of ourselves that we hold back or hide, and while those might vary in relation to different people in our lives, Vermillion's play suggests that it should always be our right to make such choices, to retain control over our consciousness, artificial or otherwise. Jessica is a memory worth adding to your own neural network. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler
Photo credit: PJ Norton
Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy.
When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.