Review: “The Effect” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Daniella Pereira and Sam Hubbard/Photo: Jesus J. Montero. 

Before the action gets going in Strawdog’s “The Effect,” a projection at the back of the stage helpfully informs the audience that an experiment is about to begin. Said experiment refers to the onstage drug trial being monitored and endured by the production’s characters, but it could just as well refer to the performance of the play itself, which like any experiment, is testing out a hypothesis on a gathered group of test subjects, aka, the audience. As questions about identity and perception swirl around the performers, the viewers are invited to draw conclusions based on the scenes playing out in front of them. Of course, like all people, test subjects have biases, and it’s to this production’s credit that I found myself considering a wild variety of positions about the uses and misuses of medication without experiencing judgment or ridicule.

Directed by Elly Green with a game cast, “The Effects” follows Connie (Daniela Pereira) and Tristan (Sam Hubbard), two young adults who have entered into a weeks-long drug trial to test out a new antidepressant on healthy subjects. Dr. Lorna James (Justine C. Turner), hired by old flame and pharmaceutical conference hot-shot Toby (Cary Shoda), is carefully watching their progress while fighting demons of her own. Tristan is already flirtatious and impulsive, and the doses he’s given heighten his feelings and choices; he quickly becomes infatuated with Connie, the only woman on the trial. She is more hesitant than Tristan, less sure of the reality they both admit to experiencing. Are the drugs responsible for their increasing dopamine levels, and thus responsible for their attraction? If there is an external cause for their romance, does that invalidate their feelings? Are we really ourselves if we are using a substance in order to modify our moods and behavior

Playwright Lucy Prebble’s script could move into some dangerous territory by posing these questions. As long as there have been antidepressant medications available, there has been a backlash to said meds. Many, many people and professionals swear by the positive effect and efficacy of such drugs. Some claim there is no way to anticipate their long-term effects on users. Others claim exercise and exposure to nature will transform one’s mental health completely, without the addition of chemicals. Still others would claim that there is disquiet to be found in taking pills to become a different, potentially better version of yourself. I am not nearly qualified to comment on all these stances, though each is given a certain amount of discussion in “The Effect,” at once astute and perhaps a little mistrusting of its audience’s intelligence, when long-winded discussions of science get in the way of the flesh and blood relationships onstage. I know I came into the play biased — as everyone is, Toby helpfully points out — by my own use of Ritalin over the course of my chilhood into my twenties. You change when you are on medication; the first difference my mother noticed was that my handwriting transformed from overly large yet somehow cramped scrawl into neat, pretty cursive. But I would never say medication turned me into a fraud; it helped me become the writer I am today. However, by giving voice to worries in her script, Prebble is able to plum deep anxieties we all have about the nature of free will and choice, and she does so with humanity and surprise, particularly in regard to Lorna’s journey from antidepressant doubter to potential believer.

Justine C. Turner and Cary Shoda/Photo: Jesus J. Montero.

Pereira and Hubbard develop a rough and complex chemistry as their relationship develops. Hubbard does not shy away from Tristan’s pushiness and sleaziness in his opening flirtations. Pereira embraces Connie’s reservations without judgment, and allows a fuller expression of passion to build over time, so when the two test subjects finally collide, director Green’s stage pictures feel monumental, sharp, and enthralling. Turner has a subtler dynamic to craft with Shoda, and if it takes most of the production’s run-time for them to reach a satisfying emotional resonance, that’s more to blame more on the script’s pacing than on Green’s work with the performers.

Yeaji Kim’s scenic design and projections feel clean and clinical, while Claire Chrzan and John Kelly’s intermittently flashing white and red lights take you from a hospital room to someplace warmer and more intimate with ease. Leah Hummel’s costumes feel just right, particularly during the transformation from street clothes to drab patient wear.

“The Effect” could well be called an experiment on audience bias. It challenges those watching, and if the production does not come to any firm conclusions, that is as it should be. When posing questions about what we all do to make our lives livable, the answer lies ultimately in each of us.

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Experiment in how romance forms, with alarming questions at play.

Show: “The Effect”

Company: Strawdog Theatre Company

Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)