Style salvages substance in Dobama’s engaging production of ‘The Effect’
By Bob Abelman
It is rare and wonderful when contemporary, complex and provocative themes result in intriguing plays. Look no further than Ayad Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand,” currently on stage at Cleveland Play House.
But sometimes they result in thoughtful but cumbersome plays whose dramatic impact could be bolstered by a theatrically complex and provocative production. That is the case with Dobama Theatre’s rendition of Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect,” under Laley Lippard’s ever-engaging direction.
The production is getting its Midwest premiere after a 2016 off-Broadway run and a 2012 award-winning world premiere in London.
The big-ticket theme addressed in this play is whether advances in neuroscience, psychiatry and pharmacology bring us closer to understanding the human brain and what it means to be human.
The play’s setting is a progressive clinical drug trial where the supervising psychiatrists – an officious Dr. Lorna James (Derdriu Ring) and celebrity shrink Dr. Toby Sealey (Joel Hammer) – hold differing positions about medical science’s ability to control and accurately measure our human qualities and effectively manipulate and repair our human frailties.
“We are this three-pound lump of jelly,” notes Dr. James as she holds a human brain in her hands. “But it’s not necessarily me, is it?”
The drug being tested is an experimental, fast-acting antidepressant that escalates the subject’s level of dopamine, which is the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters responsible for pleasure sensations and euphoria, among many other emotions.
The young trial subjects – Connie (Olivia Scicolone), a logical and seemingly self-confident college student interested in the study of psychology, and Tristan (Ananias J. Dixon), a playful and intelligent fellow who is participating in the trial for the cash – find themselves in an antiseptic medical facility for four weeks. There, every behavior is controlled, every action is observed, every drug dose is increased and every biological response is monitored.
No physical contact, smoking or cellphones are allowed for fear of contaminating the results and the technology capturing them.
But boys will be boys and girls will be girls. Not long into the trial we witness Connie and Tristan risking a clandestine smoke in the hallway, sexting each other on smuggled cellphones, making love, and erupting into physical and verbal violence. All this gives the audience a dopamine boost of its own and raises questions about whether these behaviors and emotions are natural or drug induced.
Sadly, these scenes reveal earlier and more obviously than desired the playwright’s position on the key theme that drives this play, for they demonstrate that human nature is uncontrollable, scientific protocol is highly fallible, and precise experimental method is impossible.
These scenes also unfold a bit too conveniently and clumsily to build much momentum or drama. The same problem occurs in another Prebble play, “Enron,” which experienced an early closure during its 2010 Broadway production.
To the rescue comes director Lippard, her brilliant designers and her superb cast.
Scenic designer Cameron Michalak places this production within an in-the-round medical theater, with audience members observing all that unfolds during the clinical drug trial from raised seating, as if medical personnel themselves. For the actors, this makes it hard to play to everyone around them, which Lippard’s clever staging handles beautifully.
The production is infused with perfectly orchestrated sound by Jeremy T. Dobbins, lighting by Marcus Dana and projected images on the floor by T. Paul Lowry. They reinforce the illusion of a sterile and modern medical facility, create a sense of the rush of dopamine coursing through the subjects’ veins and underscore the high emotion moments that result. All of this adds to the drama missing in the script. So does the suspended medical monitors that constantly register biometric information about the two subjects.
The raw and passionate performances turned in by the four actors add needed dimension to the dialogue. The personal history between Ring’s Dr. James and Hammer’s Dr. Sealey and the attraction between Scicolone’s Connie and Dixon’s Tristan are palpable, the emotional and physiological reactions to the ingested drugs are authentic and everything else performed on stage – including set changes – is so very interesting.
“The psycho-pharmacological is the defining event in medicine in my lifetime,” declares Dr. Sealey early in the play. This outstanding production of a play that needs one is a defining event for Dobama Theatre.
“The Effect” at Dobama Theatre
WHERE: 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
WHEN: Through March 25
TICKETS & INFO: $30–$32, call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 3, 2018.
Lead image: Ananias J. Dixon as Tristan and Olivia Scicolone as Connie. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography