BWW Review: THE EFFECT Dazzles at Houston Equity Festival
THE EFFECT by Lucy Prebble is the first project in Houston by a group of members of Actor's Equity who are presenting passion projects as part of an ongoing series throughout the rest of the year into the Fall. This particular work was chosen by Dain Geist, and he has assembled some of the best actors around these parts to put on his show. Sophia Watt directs, and the play runs at the MATCH Theater through Sunday May 19th. It is an interesting experiment, a blend of heady ideas and the city's strongest talent doing what they do best.
We have two drug trial patients who are in a medical facility to test a new antidepressant that greatly increases dopamine in the brain. The boy and girl start to have feelings for each other, but neither of them can be sure if it is because of a true connection or a simple side effect. Their attending research physician is just as baffled because she knows a few things they don't about the testing protocol. And adding to her confusion, she is working for a former lover and has her own demons to face.
The casting for this is incredibly well done with each actor contributing a specific skillset to the piece. Callina Anderson plays Connie Hall, the woman who comes into the trial and falls in love with her fellow patient. Callina has been seen at many theaters around town including Main Street and the Ensemble. She is someone who can take any script, any wild direction, and make it 100% natural and believable. She handles the twists and turns, and makes us trust in a situation where true love just might spark from chemistry. Dain Geist plays her fellow patient and love interest. He is an actor who has been seen at Classical Theatre Company, Main Street Theater and Wordsmyth. He is a truly physical presence, one of the few actors who can control his entire body throughout a performance. He delivers a portrait complete from head to toe, and manages to portray physical effects of the drug amazingly. They both have an interesting chemistry as well, and play off each other effectively.
Carolyn Johnson is a veteran of Stages, Catastrophic Theater, Theatre Under the Stars, and many others across town and frankly worldwide. She was named by the Houston Press as the "Best Actress" of 2017, and she's one of our city's treasures. She plays Dr. Lorna James, and gives the cold clinician a heartbeat and frayed nerves. Carolyn becomes the moral center of THE EFFECT, and she carries that load handily as an actress even if the character she plays is on shaky ground. Rounding out the cast is TiMOThY ERiC who has been seen at Stages, the Ensemble, and Main Street. He plays Dr. Toby Sealy, and uses his unique vocal delivery to make the head physician more colorful and fully realized than the script probably ever allows. The audience is never sure whether to trust him or not, as he dances on a gray morality with dazzling perfection.
Lucy Prebble's script is chock full of interesting ideas, even if some of the research aspects and psychiatric insights ring false. The emotional truths are what will pull you in, the pondering on if love is the drug or not. The narrative explores this from many angles, and then meditates on depression and if it is a place where one can see the world without any blinders. It's a fascinating work, and easy to see how it became the subject of a passion project.
The cast is a marvel, but so are the technical aspects of THE EFFECT. There is an all white set which has been designed by Afsaneh Aayani and Stefan Azizi which creates an exquisite blank and scary space for these characters to inhabit. Brandon Hearrell's sound design becomes a character on its own and is slickly executed.Sophia Watts directs the heck out of this work, and she wisely positions the actors in the right places throughout the proceedings. She is a master of staging tense scenes where we can view each character's reactions simultaneously.
THE EFFECT sets a high bar for the rest of The Houston Equity Festival. It's a testament to what impact a small intimate theater space can do with outstanding actors and a daring piece of written work. My only quibble with the show is some of the psychiatric terms and research protocols are a little off, but most audience members won't notice given that the emotional resonance remains intact. Where THE EFFECT is the strongest is when it comes to the question of what makes up our feelings and whether or not we can control them.
THE EFFECT is at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston through Sunday May 19th. You can get tickets through their website at https://matchouston.org/.
Photo by Pin Lim / Featuring Callina Anderson and Dain Geist