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Informed Consent Theatre Review – A Profound, “Informed” Story of Science vs. Belief

By Peter A. Balaskas

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An imaginative set design created by Designer Jerid Fox

(St. Petersburg, FL) March 18, 2017 – There is an old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This is very applicable when it comes to science. History is filled to the brim with examples of researchers who have pursued scientific endeavors for the betterment of mankind, only to discover in the end that their idealistic passions serve only as food for their own hubris. Art and literature has also explored this destructive journey, most notably Mary Shelley’s gothic horror classic, “Frankenstein.”   

Jillian (Juliana Davis, left) watches her daughter in the distance as the two mothers (Melanie Souza and Richard B. Watson) focus on taking photos

Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer examines these issues in “Informed Consent,” which is making its Tampa Bay area premiere at American Stage. She doesn’t go towards the horror/science fiction extremes that Shelley did in her novel; she grounds her story in reality and discusses how genetics define who we are as a species. The debate that ensues in her story regarding science and belief is an intriguing one. Courtesy of a talented cast, intricate direction, and especially creative scenic design, “Informed Consent” makes an impressive St. Petersburg debut.    

Graham (Jacobi Howard) tells a story to his daughter

The story takes place in the present where genetic anthropologist Jillian (Juliana Davis) addresses the audience regarding her mission: to use her scientific skills and talents to cure all diseases that have plagued (no pun intended) mankind, most notably early onset Alzheimer’s disease, an affliction that has killed her mother with slow cruelty. With passionate, optimistic, and tenacious energy, Jillian tells her story, and she has help from her emotional chorus, which includes her husband, Graham (Jacobi Howard), and three actors who play multiple roles throughout the show (Dana Segal, Richard B. Watson, and Melanie Souza). When she is chosen by social anthropologist Ken (Watson) to genetically research how diabetes is running rampant in a small Native American tribe living at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Jillian literally jumps at the chance. She even succeeds in making contact with the cynical spokesperson for the tribe, Arella (Segal), and gains her trust. But her passion slowly reveals itself as a type of well-intentioned, yet selfish, ambition. Jillian possesses the same Alzheimer’s disease gene marker as her mother, insuring that she will meet the same fate. Fearing her own daughter might have the same inherited trait, Jillian tries to use this research opportunity as a springboard to create and establish her own lab in order to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. But when she realizes that the tribe is not native to the Grand Canyon and she gives talks and writes research papers about her discovery, she not only endangers the clan’s cultural identity and belief system, she also becomes a victim of her own obsessions.

Ken (Richard B. Watson) advises Jillian to read his book about the tribe

Laufer has been slowly rising as a strong, distinct voice in the theatre scene, and although “Informed Consent” had its world premiere at Primary Stages and Ensemble Studio Theatre two years ago, the play resonates with St. Pete audiences. Her dialogue is very natural and smooth, interlacing many comic moments that balance the sad portions of the story. What is key is how the script easily flows from the solid character scenes to the stream of consciousness narration of all five characters, keeping the overall narrative and pacing consistent throughout the 90 minute production, which, wisely, has no intermission. The biggest challenge that Laufer faces is making Jillian sympathetic throughout the story, regardless of her obsessive-compulsive behavior. The first ten minutes of the play, which introduces Jillian, definitely tests the patience of the audience when she spouts off lines with saccharine, gooey glee, “Everyone in this room, everyone on this planet, we all share that one single mutation. We’re all cousins! We have so much more in common than we have differences. Really.” There was a brief second where I thought they were going to sing, “We Are the World.” But audiences should be patient with this troubled character in the long run because Laufer slowly explores Jillian’s mental mosaic regarding the pain and fear she hides. She balances Jillian’s strength, vulnerability, and flaws masterfully. One major cliché that many playwrights, and writers in general, commit is making the husband of an emotionally troubled female protagonist either an uncaring cad or an emasculated, enabling, beta male weakling. Graham is neither as he demonstrates his love for his wife, but draws the line at the selfish behavior she exhibits. And showing this realistic dynamic between both characters without sliding into this male-hating stereotype is a huge strength for Lauffer.

Jillian (Juliana Davis, left) takes blood from Arella (Dana Segal)

One character that serves as a major role in the play is the wonderfully unique set design created by Jerid Fox. The c-shaped, sterile white set, with minimalistic metal furniture, has a futuristic feel that is reminiscent of science fiction film classics such as Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Lucas’ “THX 1138,” and Niccol’s “Gattaca” (the last, ironically enough, explores how genetics plays a role in a futuristic society). One imaginative touch that Fox added in his set design includes a white floor whose tiles are in the shape of hexagons, which is a common chemical compound structure. A second creative feature are the set’s walls that also serve as video screens, which displays video and photo imagery that symbolize many of the story’s key scenes, including illustrations of genetic chains, animations of one of Graham’s stories, and scenic shots of the Grand Canyon. These technological techniques add to the play’s scientific flavor. Director Benjamin T. Ismail (who is also the sound designer, and major kudos for that significant contribution) guides his actors beautifully where the pacing never lags, and yet he also knows which scenes need special attention, to enhance the intimacy of important moments in the play.  

Graham (Jacobi Howard) comforts Jillian (Juliana Davis)

All five performers are flawless in their portrayals. For the Chorus Trio, Segal not only displays a poignant innocence as Natalie (Jillian’s daughter), but she also shows powerful dignity as Arella, the tribal council spokesperson whose street wisdom matches her unconditional, yet mistaken, trust towards Jillian. Souza has heartbreaking moments as Jillian’s mother, which balances her no-nonsense stature as University Dean Hagan. And Watson, who gave an incredibly mercurial performance in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (American Stage’s previous production), hits it out of the ballpark by showing some comedy relief portraying a nagging, stay-home mother, as well as exuding a protective, wise nature as the anthropologist Ken.

But the two leads provide the major drive of the work. Howard’s Graham is the emotional heart of the couple. He is a lovable gentle giant/teddy bear of a man whose loving, outgoing nature matches well with his honesty and integrity. He serves as Jillian’s conscience and spiritual foundation. And Davis’ Jillian is a tour-de-force in acting where she interlaces an intellectually manic, obsessive/compulsive edge with a delicate, vulnerable sensitivity that is slowly revealed as though she were peeling an emotional onion one layer at a time. It’s a meticulous performance she gives, making sure that the unlikable traits don’t dominate the character at any time during the play.

From a scientific standpoint, the Concluding Formula for this dramatic experiment is this: five nuanced performances + talented direction + creative set designs = a uniquely imaginative “theatrical genetic chain” titled “Informed Consent.”

 

Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, and playwright.

Informed Consent runs from March 15 – April 9, 2017

American Stage

163 3rd St N.

St. Petersburg, FL 33701

Photos by Kara Goldberg

Published on Mar 20, 2017

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