Reviewed by Judy Richter
Jennifer Marcus (Sue Jean Kim) is a brilliant but disturbed young woman. As portrayed in Rolin Jones' "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow: An Instant Message With Excitable Music," the 22-year-old is virtually housebound by agoraphobia. However, her computer links her to the outside world, albeit to a somewhat strange assortment of friends. Her story undoubtedly has some resonance with Silicon Valley audiences at San Jose Repetory Theatre, which is co-producing the young playwright's work with Portland Center Stage in Oregon.
Born in China and abandoned by her mother, Jennifer was an infant when she was adopted by a Southern California couple, Mr. Marcus (Tim True) and Adele (Valerie Stevens). A former firefighter who had to retire because of injuries, her dad spends most of his time looking for fires from the roof of the family home in a gated subdivision. Her mother is a Type-A corporate executive who travels most of the week and spends weekends at home badgering Jennifer to get a job, any job, and to take out the garbage. Jennifer, who's also obsessive-compulsive, spends most of her time on her laptop in her bedroom.
Jennifer decides she wants to learn the identity of her birth mother, so she goes online to befriend Terrence (Kevin Rich), a Mormon missionary in China, who uses his location and the church's vast geneological records to find Jennifer's birth certificate and learn the woman's name and address. Because Jennifer can't even venture from the garage to the curb with the garbage can, much less travel to China, she decides to build a robot that will make the trip for her. Aided by her online mentor, eccentric robotics expert Dr. Yakunin (also Rich, who plays all of the online roles), she works out a deal with the Army to update old guided missiles in exchange for parts. Todd (Craig W. Marker), a friend from high school and now a pizza delivery guy, serves as her go-between, securing a post office box and delivering packages to her. Soon Jennifer has her robot, which she names Jenny Chow (Ka-Ling Cheung). Jenny flies to China and meets Jennifer's birth mother. Jennifer witnesses the meeting through virtual reality technology.
Although the title might initially suggest that the play involves the controversy between evolution and intelligent design as another name for creationism, this is a intriguing, well-written exploration of a young woman's search for her true identity via a high-tech alter-ego. It also looks at family dynamics and Jennifer's stormy relationship with her exasperated, high-strung mother and her calmer relationship with her somewhat detached father. There's also her friendship with Todd, who's nowhere near Jennifer's intellectual equal, yet they care about each other and try to help each other. Director Kim Rubenstein paces the action well and guides her excellent cast through the play's ups and downs.
Complemented by Peter Maradudin's lighting, the set by G.W. Mercier is dominated by Jennifer's bedroom along with the family's kitchen on one side and the roof on the other. Background panels slide open to reveal Jennifer's online contacts. Costumes are by Nephelie Andonyadis and sound by Daniel Baker. The excellent "excitable music" of the subtitle is by Matthew Suttor.