by Mike Hoban
Informed Consent – Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer; Directed by Dale J. Young; Set Design by Jessica Pizzut; Sound Design by Camilo Atehortua; Costume Design by Elizabeth Rocha; Lighting Design by Danielle Fauteux Jacques. Presented by the Apollinaire Theatre Company at the Chelsea Theatre Works, 189 Winnisimmet St., Chelsea through March 12.
Informed Consent, the unsettling and thought-provoking work now being staged by Apollinaire at the Chelsea Theatre Works, is – on the surface – about finding the middle ground between science and belief systems that may or may not serve a greater purpose for those that hold them. But it is, at its core, a very human story. Powered by an affecting performance by Becca A. Lewis, it is a compelling tale of how rigidly applying science and logic devoid of any real humanness can complicate rather than solve complex problems. It is also a very human story of how fear-driven behavior can cripple one’s ability to connect with the rest of the universe in a meaningful way.
The play is based on the case of the Havasupai Tribe vs. Arizona State University, in which members of the tribe began giving blood samples to a scientific team from ASU in order to see if there was a genetic component to the extraordinarily high rate of diabetes (55% of Havasupai women and 38% of Havasupai men were diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes) in the population. Although no genetic link to diabetes was found, the researcher allegedly used the blood samples for unrelated studies on migration patterns and inbreeding without the explicit consent of the tribe members, which came in direct conflict with the isolated tribe’s creation story. The case was settled out of court but raised a number of ethical questions as well as reigniting science vs. religious beliefs argument.
Using the case as a springboard, playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer takes the issue of ethics in scientific research (bound to be an increasing concern in coming years) and adds the dimension of a psychically damaged and driven soul as the scientific protagonist – to great dramatic effect. Jillian is a genetics researcher who lost her mother to an early onset of Alzheimer’s at the age of 36, when she herself was seven years old. She also knows that she is genetically predisposed to the same fate and worries that her four-year old daughter Natalie may join her in that unfortunate gene pool. During the opening of the play, she is composing a letter to her daughter (of which the significance will eventually become clear to the audience) that begins, “Once upon a time … There was a mother. Who had a monster sleeping inside her,” before amending it to a much less horrifying, “Once upon a time … There was a mother who loved her little girl so much, that she would do anything to save her.” To which a cast member in the Greek chorus solemnly responds, “No matter who got hurt.”
As the narrative unfolds, Jillian is given a plum career advancement opportunity by her boss at the university to try and find the genetic link between the tribe – which has lived at the bottom of the Grand Canyon for centuries – and the diabetes that is ravaging its people. She sets right to work, forsaking any guidance in the process. She is – to put it mildly – overly ambitious as well as completely blind to any cultural sensitivity that might be useful in convincing the members of the tribe to cooperate with the study. When Arella (Deniz Khateri) — her translator and the only tribe member who speaks English — tells her that her tribe believes that “if you’re not buried with your blood, your soul will not rest and you will not (enter) the spirit world” you can almost feel Jillian suppressing her laughter. Which may be an understandable reaction for a scientist, but probably not the best way to win the trust of the woman who is trying to convince her people to break with ancient custom by offering their blood samples for testing.
Jillian’s inability to connect with other people in a human way is a dominant theme throughout the play, and her interactions with the other moms at a child’s birthday party, colleagues, tribe members and even her own husband Graham (Demetrius Fuller) and daughter, are painful to watch. And despite knowing that much of her inappropriate (and near criminal) behavior is fueled by her knowledge of her own (and possibly her daughter’s) impending doom, it’s difficult to generate any sympathy for her plight because of her abrasiveness and blindly hurtful behavior.
Becca A. Lewis is marvelous in the role of Jillian, finding peace of mind only in the certainty of science while missing the bigger picture of life. The rest of the cast is solid as well, with Fuller a perfect counterpoint to Lewis as Graham, her children’s author husband; Khateri is convincing in the dual roles of Arella and four-year old Natalie, and Paola M. Ferrer and Arthur Waldstein do a nice job in multiple roles (seeing the septuagenarian Waldstein playing both a soccer mom and a pre-school girl is a scream). Deborah Zoe Laufer is a gifted playwright, and she handles this serious material as well as her brilliantly funny previous works I’ve seen in recent years, Out of Sterno and The Last Schwartz (both given wonderful treatments by Gloucester Stage in the previous two years). Informed Consent is well worth the trip to Chelsea, particularly if you prefer your theater a little more intellectually challenging than the standard fare being offered elsewhere. For more info, go to: http://www.apollinairetheatre.com/