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The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow

This uneven yet thought-provoking play by Rolin Jones mixes equal parts of science fiction and dysfunctional family drama. logo
Eunice Wong and Julienne Hanzelka Kim
in The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
"These aren't the lives we're supposed to be living," says Jennifer Marcus, the central character of Rolin Jones' uneven yet thought-provoking The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. Despite its title, the play does not comment on the current debate between evolution and creationism; rather, it mixes equal parts of science fiction and dysfunctional family drama as it tells the story of a 22-year-old girl genius who builds a robot to seek out the mother who abandoned her at birth.

Jennifer, played by Julienne Hanzelka Kim, could find her birth mother on her own except for one small problem: she's agoraphobic and, hence, unable to leave her house. She hasn't always been this way, and her retreat to the comfort and safety of her bedroom are of great concern to her adoptive parents, particularly her mother Adele (Linda Gehringer), who attempts to bribe, cajole, and guilt-trip her daughter into stepping outside.

It takes awhile for the play to get going, as there's a large amount of exposition needed. Also, Kim begins at such a high level of agitation that it leaves her nowhere to go. Incredibly, the actress is able to sustain this manic energy level throughout the play, but it's wearing on the audience. She is more effective in the rare moments when she slows down and allows herself to connect to her character's emotions.

Director Jackson Gay may be partly to blame; he has paced the production so relentlessly that several of the cast members end up giving highly exaggerated performances. Michael Cullen overplays the role of Jennifer's cheery, understanding Dad. Gehringer also pushes too hard at times, although a scene between her and Kim's Jennifer while Adele is calling from an airplane is quite touching.

Remy Auberjonois delivers the most high-energy performance of all, yet it's also the most consistently entertaining. The actor plays a number of different roles, including a conflicted Mormon missionary, a crazed robotics professor, and a stern army colonel. He gives each of them a uniquely crafted personality, and his final appearance as Terrence -- the Mormon missionary -- is especially moving.

Eunice Wong, as the robot Jenny Chow, captures both the mechanical precision of her character and Jenny's wide-eyed naiveté as she begins to learn things for herself. Ryan King does a fine job as Jennifer's best friend, Todd, who has some of the best lines in the script. My favorite is Todd's reaction to Jennifer's remarkable achievement of building a sentient robot in the space of a month: "Dude, one time it took me a month to make a bong."

Throughout the show, Takeshi Kata's set is reconfigured into a number of different shapes to suggest different locations. Tyler Micoleau's lighting helps with these scene shifts, as do the efforts of composer Matthew Suttor and sound designer Daniel Baker. Jenny Mannis has also done fine work on the costumes.

The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow does not have closure in the traditional sense. Its author explores the theme of family dysfunction in a compelling manner, refusing to offer easy solutions. There's so much here that's left unresolved, it almost seems as if Jones has set up the play for a sequel.

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