BWW Review: New England Premiere of THE EFFECT at Gloucester Stage Company
Written by Lucy Prebble, Directed by Sam Weisman; Set & Projection Design, J. Michael Griggs; Costume Design, Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Sound Design, David Remedios; Composer, Claudio Ragazzi; Violence Design, Robert Walsh; Choreographer, Maurice Emmanuel Parent; Properties Design, Jenna Worden; Stage Manager, Maegan Alyse Passafume
Performances through July 8 at Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
It is a simple premise: Two candidates in a pharmaceutical drug trial fall in love, but is their chemistry real, or induced? This scientific debate is the subject of Lucy Prebble's The Effect, now in its New England Premiere at Gloucester Stage Company. Under the direction of Sam Weisman, the play stars Academy Award nominee and Gloucester resident Lindsay Crouse as Dr. Lorna James and multi-faceted Saturday Night Live alum Brad Hall as Dr. Toby Sealey, a pair with a past, along with Susannah Hoffman (Connie) and Mickey Solis (Tristan) as the volunteers who may have a future. Both relationships contribute talking points on either side of the discourse that fuels the drama, but the playwright leaves enough doubt to allow the viewer to wrestle with the conclusion.
Dr. James has been hired by Dr. Sealey to run a four-week experiment to test an anti-depressant drug which raises dopamine levels. In the tightly-controlled trial, the volunteers are evaluated on a range of measures and monitored for medical, as well as psychological, markers as dosage amounts are gradually increased. Connie and Tristan are kept in the dark by the doctors as to what any of their symptoms might mean, but they bond as subjects sharing the same experience, and eventually discover a mutual attraction. Her natural cynicism leads her to believe that their feelings are an effect of the drug, while his open, positive outlook convinces him that their chemistry is real. Genuine or synthetic, the burgeoning pull affects their behavior and begins to impact the study, resulting in anxiety and soul-searching for James.
It is no coincidence that the ratcheting up of the dosage leads to a quickening of the heart rate of the play as the stakes are raised for both the young couple and the drug trial. Their parallel tracks seem to be at odds with each other, the human consequences on the one hand and the scientific outcome on the other. This is where things get dicey for James as she tries to serve two masters, and this is where we get to see the brilliance of Crouse's performance. Initially, her character is all business and by the book, showing her dedication to the protocol. However, little fissures open in her facade, expanding as the pressure mounts when she has to choose between her competing responsibilities. Crouse authentically walks each step of James' story arc, keeping her secrets hidden until they cry out to be exposed. Her feelings of ambivalence, pain, and betrayal are palpable, lending credence to her ultimate choice.
Crouse and Hall share a wonderful rapport that emphasizes collegiality on the surface, while implying an underlying truth. He conveys the smooth, intelligent confidence of the renowned psychiatrist at the helm of the study, as well as some shades of conceit and cluelessness about how he might be perceived. While Sealey sees himself as magnanimous, Hall gives him just enough humanity that we could be taken in by him were it not for that veiled narcissism in his tone and attitude. He comes across as a man with only a passing acquaintance with regret.
In contrast with the doctors' personalities, the characters of the trial participants are far more relatable, and Hoffman and Solis nail them down from their first appearance when they are being interviewed for the study. Connie is a bundle of insecurities who puts on a tough exterior, while Tristan is a veteran of many studies and acts like the old hand offering to help the newbie. She is hesitant to trust him, but is drawn in by his affable nature, in spite of herself. The actors establish the individuality of their characters, and then seamlessly knit them together as a unit. Connie and Tristan go through a harrowing event which forces them to be vulnerable and learn to depend on each other. Hoffman and Solis dig deep to make the couple's transition believable and emotional.
J. Michael Griggs augments his own simple set design with projections, including informative supertitles that provide details about the experiment. Russ Swift alters lighting for different events during the drug trial and spotlights Crouse in moments when voiceovers let us listen in on James' thoughts. The latter need more clarity, but sound design by David Remedios also includes applause at a speech by Sealey, texting notifications, and an ominous pulsating heart beat. Claudio Ragazzi is the composer of original music played during scene transitions, costume design is by Miranda Kau Giurleo, and Robert Walsh handles violence design.
The Effect is set in the present day and feels timely. It is not unusual to find that a pharmaceutical drug that is developed for one purpose has an application for an unrelated problem, and the specifics of the side effect of the tested drug in the play make sense. The experimental anti-depressant elevates the dopamine level, the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. It helps regulate emotional responses and may encourage risk-taking behavior. Playwright Prebble explores the possibilities made available by introducing the wonders of modern medicine into the age-old game of love, and Gloucester Stage Company finds the foursome with just the right chemistry to achieve the desired effect.