Statistics currently state that 1 in 6 Americans are on anti-depressants. This uptick in the number of people being diagnosed and prescribed medication for depression is big business. “The Effect” by Lucy Preble is a science fiction thriller set in the present. Two patients have consented to help as test subjects for a new anti-depressant medication. And all of that is fine and dandy, until, like romantic entanglements complicate the studies. Love always messes shit up.
“Welcome to Rauchen Pharmaceutical Industries” a cyber voice announces as you settle in for this experiment. There are projections that keep you paced for the phases like dosage increases, and basic testing. As two patients enter, the intake process begins. While returning from pee samples (like in a cup and all) they bump into each other and strike up a conversation. The drugs are meant to spike dopamines and increase behavior similar to meeting someone for the first time (that butterflies in the tummy effect). The problem becomes- are their feelings genuine or are they merely side effects of the medication they are testing? And what would happen if one was not taking the drug, but on a placebo? Is their behavior any less or more excusable? Quite a conundrum. Through in some additional romantic entanglements between doctors, a few stray fact misleading sessions, a few missteps in the general testing procedures and disaster is imminent.
The first patient is Meghan Stanton as Connie Hall. She is in a relationship outside this study, and appears somewhat happy. Her critical stance emerging in the beginning is due to her studies in psychology. The women in this play seem infinitely more grounded than the men. Stanton portrays Connie as a no-nonsense chick who is not looking for entanglement. But she can’t resist the charm, albeit awkward charm, of Tristan, the other patient. Stanton’s countenance of seriousness even in the light of resounding evidence against her better judgements are what nail down this performance.
The other patient is Tristan Frey, brought to life by Nate Krimmel. Nate’s overarching presence resides well in his boyish antics. He is nervous, reckless, silly, and adorable. Even though a bit blundering in his efforts to entice the girl, it is just that sort of fumbling that I think wins her over in the end. Despite all of these things, he is not all he seems. And Krimmel does an excellent job of layering the effects of Tristan’s personality as the drugs get more intense, and as the play complicates into further issues.
Gareth Kelly plays Dr. Toby Sealy, a sort of shady psychologist who is testing the drug for Rauchen Pharmaceuticals. He seems to have a complicated past, even further complicated by the fact that he has entangled himself (literally) with several of his doctors and colleagues. Kelly’s stumbling a bit over his words in the first scene was either keen acting as he tries to maintain composure in front of a woman he once cared for, or he was nervous as heck to be on stage. His “fleecing” of the audience for money with a nod to Yorrick, but with a brain instead of a skull, and his self assured stature secure his status as the lead researcher and doctor who pockets all the profits.
Dr. Lorna James is the centerpiece of this production, portrayed by Mia Robinson. Her demeanor as a doctor seems sincere. I would like to have her as my doctor, I think she presents herself as confident and caring while maintaining some clinical detachment. Her mistakes seem all too human and natural, and it is hard to watch as she embodies the guilt of her decisions. At one point in the script, she tells the story of a make believe business and then quizzes the patients post exposition. One of the questions is, “why was your business successful?” Connie calls her out on it and says that that information was not presented in the story, which is true. And Dr. James explains that some patients blame outside factors for their success or failure and this indication is a psychological tool to determine minor mental instabilities. It makes it even more heartbreaking then when she herself embodies her mistakes and lets them eat her alive.
Two technicians are played by Yahira Jean, and Kelsey Murphy and they offer dutiful support to the doctors as needed. Set Designer Bruce Kapplin has outdone himself. The two tiered platforms work well as not only exam rooms for patients, but as their bunks, with lights behind sheets of frosted plastic for a futuristic look and to underscore the mood and tempo of the situations. His stairs double as fire escapes, and the projections on the back I assume are the design of Chris Allen along with the lights. These elements worked so seamlessly together, it was all encompassing in its world building. At one point the projections on the back seemed to blink and flicker along with the music and plot. I started to wonder if it was a glitch, or subliminal messages somehow overlaid into the production? See, now you’ve made me paranoid and I didn’t even take the damn pills!
Fight and Intimacy Choreographer Jonathon Ezra Rubin had his work cut out for him. There are warning signs on the way in about sexual content and situations. There are multiple acts of sexual activity simulated on the stage, and they did a nice job of looking real without endangering actors and going too far. The fight choreography was not quite as tight. There is a scene down front between Connie and Tristan that looked kind of loose and slow, and although that probably ensured their well-being, it didn’t read to the audience as quite as drastic and passion fueled as it was supposed to be.
Director Andrew Porter does a nice job with casting and coaxing full potential from all his actors. They all seem very very invested and tuned in to the pharmaceutical studies. His vision is not without context, there is a personal connection noted in the program along with extensive information about depression and the business of treating it. Speaking of depression, for anyone out there sensitive to such things, this play is extraordinarily intense. My friend and I were both, at different moments, shifting uncomfortably in our seats and mouth breathing a little. I can speak from experience with depression, anxiety, and medications to treat them, and watching and listening to some of this was hard to stomach- it hit a little too close to home.
The most troubling part of this production is the story line itself. It leaves you with more questions than answers in some cases. If a person is on medication, to what degree are they still themselves versus a product of the ramifications of said medicine? How can you maintain a sense of self, when you are on mood altering drugs? What if you know that the medicine is chemically altering your brain, then are you aware of the inherent bias or can it not be overcome? We spent some time hashing these questions and more post show over a pint. We did not solve all the issues investigated here, but we did have enlightening discourse about the industry behind medicine, and what it means to ultimately “be well.”
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Go see this disturbing and vivid production that depicts a simple love story, but told through the lens of big pharma’s developmental phases. There are so many facets to this play- some simple and some extremely complex that it almost requires follow up or more than one viewing. I recommend time for a post show discussion, possibly with libations- but don’t mix it with any medicines- that shit will mess you up. (I)
Running through March 17th at Fells Point Corner Theater. Running time two hours and thirty minutes with one fifteen-minute intermission.