By: Paulanne Simmons
When a play is commissioned by the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project, you c
an expect it to be about big ideas. Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Informed Consent, now making its New York City Premiere at Primary Stages, certainly lives up to those expectations. Cleverly directed by Liesl Tommy, the play contrast a personal story of genetic fallibility with a broader narrative of race, ethical research and cultural identity.
Informed Consent is based on a true story. In 1990, the Havasupai, an isolated tribe living at the base of the Grand Canyon, signed a broadly worded consent form giving researchers the right to use their blood for medical research. The Havasupai were reluctant to give their blood, which they believe is sacred, but did so because they hoped the research might find a genetic cause of their high rates of diabetes. When the scientists used their blood samples to test for a wide range of factors, including migration patterns, which contradicted their tribal creation myth, they felt angry and betrayed.
The researcher in Informed Consent is Jillian (Tina Benko), who has personal reasons for her interest in genetics: her mother died of early onset Alzheimer’s, and she is genetically destined for the same fate. Her 4-year-old daughter, Natalie (Delanna Studi), may also have the deadly gene, but Jillian cannot be sure yet. Her husband, Graham (Pun Bandhu), an easygoing children’s book writer, is vehemently against the idea of testing their daughter for a disease that can be neither prevented nor cured.
The tribe is represented by Arella (Studi), also a mother worried about her daughter’s health and future. Until their eventual falling out, we are hopeful the two women’s bonding may help create a bridge between their disparate worlds. Jillian’s boss, Ken (Jess J. Perez), the social scientist who called her in to oversee the study, has been working with the tribe so long he clearly identifies with their view of the situation. He
feels both betrayed and alarmed at Jillian’s reckless actions.
This production has many sophisticated touches. It uses spiral staircases to represent the sides of the Grand Canyon and the DNA double helix, file boxes as the back wall framing the space, and flashing projections to represent the letters of genetic combinations.
The actors, to a large extent, work as an ensemble, with casting blind to both race and age. The audience is asked to imagine actors in very different roles and at the same time imagine the settings in which they are placed.
Informed Consent has certain Brechtian elements. The script constantly reminds us that we are watching a story unfold, that these are characters in a play, that ideas and narrative are tightly intertwined. Actors play multiple roles. They address the audience.
Despite its cerebral nature, this play does have highly emotional moments, mostly thanks to Benko’s ability to portray Jillian’s complex character, which mixes arrogance, fear and love. Quite possibly, it is these scenes, where Jillian struggles with her own certainty and her own mortality, that will make the most lasting impression on the audience.
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