Breathtaking acting anchors a brilliant world premiere of José Rivera’s Your Name Means Dream at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The play delves into the contemporary promise of and concerns about AI, but it is at heart the story of a relationship between the elderly Aislin (Anne O’Sullivan) and Stacy (Sara Koviak), her human-like AI robot caregiver.
Exploring the potential “humanity” — in both its good and bad senses — of robots has long been a theme in stories and films going back at least to Karl Čapek’s 1928 R.U.R. Familiar examples include Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, the replicants in Blade Runner, Star Trek’s Mr. Data, and, in a closer parallel to Rivera’s play, the 2012 movie Robot & Frank, about a man slipping into dementia who is cared for by a relatable (if not physically humanoid) robot. In this genre, the key questions are whether machines can become human, thinking and feeling beings, and to the extent they can, what are the implications for both the robots and the humans who interact with them? Given current rapid advances in AI, these questions are becoming more than hypothetical.
Take Stacy, whom Aislin describes as simultaneously “beautiful and creepy.” Koviak, with her strong dance background, takes her character on a marvelous physical acting journey, her movement beginning stiffly robotic and gradually becoming freer and more humanly “natural,” eventually teaching Aislin how to dance.
Rivera, who also directed the production, gives Stacy some striking individual moments. Twice, she inhabits the character of Roberto, Aislin’s thoroughly unpleasant son, to whom Koviak lends the physicality and voice of a simultaneously obnoxious and wounded New Yorker. In the second act, Stacy is hacked, and Koviak delivers flawlessly a rapid-fire, disconnected, manic sense of what an AI entity’s nervous breakdown might sound, look, and feel like.
But is Stacy more than a sophisticated “toaster,” as Aislin initially calls her? Can she understand beauty and its transience? Can she feel empathy and act on it? Can she understand her past and look to a future? Stacy’s evolution as a being leads to positive answers to the first two questions. The answer to the third is ambiguous. Her AI brain is specialized solely for her work with Aislin. After Aislin dies, Stacy’s brain will be wiped by the tech company (“Singularity”) that made her, and she will have no memories of Aislin or of who she was with Aislin. Yet she retains bodily memories, which she recounts in a vivid monologue about a past gig as a sex worker.
The play talks about the next development in AI technology for beings like Stacy, an “approximation of soul” app (AOS). In his online interview for CATF, Rivera says that “the trick in the play is that Stacy may already have that, but she doesn’t know it.” Whether or not Stacy has the app, she comes to relate to Aislin in ways that are beautifully human, in looks and tones of voice and actions that Koviak beautifully conveys. “We learn to be human” is a commonplace in sociology: Stacy learns to be human through her relationship with Aislin.
As for Aislin, her name in Gaelic does mean “dream.” Yet Aislin has no dreams. Her nights, and much of her days, are black voids. She is constantly, profanely angry, filled with guilt and regret. She is estranged from her son and desperately lonely, dreading the thought of dying alone. O’Sullivan plumbs the terrors of aging not gracefully but messily. But it is her mess, and with her considerable life force, Aislin insists on living it on her terms. Through knowing Stacy, Aislin recovers hope and thoughts of a future, discovering the possibility of something like friendship with another being. There’s never a moment when O’Sullivan’s portrayal of Aislin isn’t fully real and human. She and Koviak give a master class on what a dynamic and emotionally intimate scene-partner relationship means to a play’s success.
David M. Barber’s realistic scenic design centers on Aislin’s cluttered apartment, which Stacy, on her first entrance, begins to straighten up. But there’s another element — a window that Stacy must open, since she needs light to function: her eyes are her solar panels. Above it is a constellation of squares, representing Stacy’s connection to her tech roots. In Christina Watanabe’s lighting design, they illuminate in various colors, appropriate to different scenes, glowing red, for example, when Stacy is hacked.
The sound design, by David Remedios, begins with a pre-show combination of plucked instrument tunes overlaid with New York street noises. The instrumental sounds recur at points, and electronic sounds, sometimes ominous, underscore other scenes. It’s effective without becoming obtrusive. During scene changes, there are snippets of news reports about social unrest reacting to the increasing prominence of AI beings: demonstrations, violence, even a condemnation of AOS by the Pope, adding to the play’s consideration of public AI issues beyond the relationship of the two characters.
In Ashley Soliman’s costume design, clothing evolves along with the characters’ changes. Stacy’s initial short, tight, sexy outfit — did Singularity perhaps recycle it from her sex worker days? — gives way, in the second act, to a more comfortable denim coverall. Aislin first appears in a tatty, who-cares-what-I-look-like, shirt and shorts, but by the end, anticipating a possible date, she wears a sweet white dress.
There is much humor in the play, particularly in the first act. But what matters most is the joint growth of the two characters, culminating in a touching Pietà moment at the play’s conclusion.
CATF regularly mounts high-level professional productions of new plays. Your Name Means Dream is a sterling example of why a jaunt to Shepherdstown — not that far from the DC area — is well worth it for anyone interested in fine theater they haven’t had the opportunity to see before.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
Your Name Means Dream plays through July 29, 2023, presented by the Contemporary American Theater Festival performing in the Marinoff Theater, 62 West Campus Drive, Shepherdstown, WV, in repertory with four other CATF plays. See the CATF website (catf.org/2023-schedule) for performance dates and times. Purchase tickets ($70 regular, $60 senior) at catf.org/buy-tickets or through the box office, firstname.lastname@example.org or 681-240-2283.
COVID Safety: There are two mask-required performances (July 16 at 7 pm and July 26 at 7 pm); otherwise, masks are optional.
SEE ALSO: Huge themes are the proper domain of theater’: a Q&A with José Rivera (interview by Deryl Davis, June 20, 2023)