Theater Review: “Informed Consent” — When Science and Ethics Collide
Informed Consent is the smartest play I’ve seen hit Boston area stages since the new year began.
Informed Consent by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Dale J. Young. Presented by Apollinaire Theatre Company at Chelsea Theatre Work, Chelsea, MA, through March 12.
By Ian Thal
Jillian Elliot (Becca A. Lewis) is a genetic anthropologist – a scientist who traces the migratory history of the world’s tribes and ethnicities through the history encoded in their DNA. She is a white person who doesn’t believe in “race” because it can’t be found in genes; for her, all humans are cousins descended from the mitochondrial Eve who lived some 150 thousand years ago. Her expertise in genetics gives her the opportunity to head up a research project at her university; her mission is to locate the genetic markers that explain why an unnamed local tribe (a fictional analogue of the Havasupai people; the story dramatizes their 2004 law suit against Arizona State University) is being decimated by type 2 diabetes. Ken (Arthur Waldstein) an elderly colleague and practitioner of a more qualitative brand of cultural anthropology, has spent decades with the tribe, earning their trust. He has even written a book on them. Jillian finds Ken’s concrete, hands-on approach quaint: in an internal monologue she dismisses what he is doing as “barely a science,” preferring her big data analyses of the human genome.
The tribe lives an isolated existence in the Grand Canyon and its members still speak English as a second language. According to their traditions, they originated in the Canyon and their blood must never be separated from their bodies for the sake of protecting their souls. But the ravages of diabetes – the early deaths, the amputations, the obesity that prevents many from scaling the canyon walls as demanded by their traditional hunting and foraging practices — has forced members to agree to allow Jillian’s team to collect blood. She is unable to find a specific genetic marker linked to the disease, so she authorizes other research. Jillian begins lecturing and writing papers on what she sees as the tribe’s “inbreeding coefficient” and how this fits into the widely accepted theory that the native peoples of the Americas are descended from a migration across the Bering Strait. She uses the DNA findings to contradict the tribe’s sacred origin story, moving, from their perspective, into the realm of the taboo.
Complications arise. Jillian hasn’t just discovered truths the tribe finds deeply uncomfortable, she has violated the requirement of ‘informed consent,” a key legal and ethical principle of medicine and medical research. Informed consent became part of the Nuremberg Code, under which Nazi doctors were prosecuted for war crimes. Later, it became part of US law after the shocking revelations of the Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis in African-American sharecroppers. Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer has chosen a far less extreme case of scientific exploitation, but she mines it for intelligent drama.
Why does Jillian take ethical shortcuts? It is not just about ambition, but a panicked sense that time is running out. When she was a little girl, her mother suffered from a case of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – and Jillian carries the same gene. She is reluctant to become close to others – including her husband Graham (Demetrius Fuller), a children’s book author, and their four-year old daughter Natalia (Deniz Khateri) – fearing that she will soon be unable to remember them. Laufer rather cleverly links this avoidance of intimacy to Jillian’s distaste for field work. She is most comfortable seeing others as archetypes rather than as individuals.
Laufer has also elegantly layered other themes in this sophisticated script. She is particularly interested in the nature of narrative, from whether DNA can ever be decoded to tell the history of all the world’s peoples to establishing links between the tribe’s oral history (its origins and oppression at the hands of the white man) with Graham’s children’s stories and Jillian’s horror of dementia. There is also an ironic examination of the Enlightenment ideal: Jillian tramples on accepted democratic concepts of consent and autonomy for the sake of pursuing information that will benefit humanity (the “cousins”). Yes, she is desecrating the sacred, but not out of malice. She simply doesn’t recognize that the sacred exists. The advance of science depends on accumulating knowledge wherever it is found – Jillian doesn’t bother to ask if humanity wants to be an object of her investigations.
Part of what makes Informed Consent so effective is that Laufer does not weigh in on the thorny ethical conflict at its heart. No matter where one’s sympathies may go, the dramatist plays fair with other side. Each member of the conflict articulates good reasons for his or her beliefs and actions. This is a far cry from the heavy-handedness and contrivances in other popular science issue plays, such Michael Fran’s Copenhagen or Caryl Churchill’s A Number.
In terms of the acting, Lewis does justice to Jillian’s complexity. In any given scene, the actress has to suggest myriad contradictions: the character is altruistic and ethically compromised, funny and brilliant yet dominating, arrogant, and graceless. Fuller makes Graham’s predicament charming. The character is alternately fascinated and frustrated by his wife’s clueless indifference to others – her lack of a filter was attractive when they were dating, but it is frightening once they have a daughter to raise.
The other members of the ensemble shine as they embrace a variety of archetypical roles. Khateri plays Arella, the tribal representative whose trust is earned and then betrayed, as well as portraying a welcome counterpoint, the pony-obsessed Natalia. Waldstein invests Ken the cultural anthropologist with impressive gravitas, and then comically plays against type as a little girl at Graham’s book signing, as well as portraying a mother at a birthday party. Paola M. Ferrer cuts a powerful presence as the dean of the university; he also plays the mothers that haunt the memories of Jillian and Arella. Director Dale J. Young’s direction of the ensemble is spot-on, particularly his fine tuning of an ensemble that, given the intersecting dialogue demands of the script, must be in tune with each other.
Jessica Pizzuti makes the most of a tight budget in her scenic design; her genomic and geological inspired landscape integrates the waters of the Colorado River, the rock faces of the Grand Canyon, strands of DNA, and the branching off of mankind’s myriad tribes from mitochondrial Eve. Elizabeth Rocha’s costume design also wisely clads Jillian in a no-nonsense gray dress while asserting the outsider status of the rest of the cast members through the use of desert colors: white linen, khaki, brown, and sky blue.
Informed Consent is the smartest play I’ve seen hit Boston area stages since the new year began. Once again, Apollinaire Theatre Company makes Chelsea a worthy destination for theatergoers looking to be challenged rather than soothed.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.