When I was 17 I saw a therapist, as many a depressed and disillusioned teen has. There are many aspects of those sessions I remember, but one that clearly sticks out in my memory ten years later is my therapist asking if I thought I needed medication to which I quickly declined. I did this for two reasons: my stubborn nature, and the fear of taking something mind-altering. For as intricate a device our brains are they are easily influenced and tampered my internal and external forces; the notion of having a pill influence me to such a degree did and still does chill me to my core. Please note this is by no means a denunciation of psychiatric medication or its multiple benefits but simply the reasoning behind my individual choice. I know plenty of people whose lives have greatly improved through said treatments, and would never think to disparage their usage. It simply appears monumental to me that such changes could occur through something so small.
The Effect by Lucy Prebble follows two volunteers in a paid clinical trial for a potent new antidepressant as they’re confined from society for five weeks to record the results. However, an infatuation between the two begins to blossom as the doctors behind the experiment grapple with the moral ramifications of their work and their personal demons.
First of all I must say the all-around design behind this production is absolutely gorgeous. Mark Pickell’s set depicts a sterile, white room which at evokes countless doctors’ offices and testing facilities, leaving the vast portion of the set pieces vague or absent to allow manipulation (not dissimilar to the plot). When paired with Patrick Anthony’s always stellar lighting design, the scenes are able to shift swiftly from one location to another with little more to indicate their locale than two mobile beds and a small collection of props as needed. However, what really got to me throughout the production was Lowell Bartholomee’s subtle sound design. The often quiet ambient noise created for the show does exactly what proper audio should do, create atmosphere without distracting the audience. Anything from the soft yet frantic beating of a heart to the mounting ticking of a clock truly polished tense moments that brace you for the oncoming drama.
Now let’s move onto the two test subjects in question, Tristan and Connie (Delanté Keys and Sarah Danko respectively). As a pair the two work off each other well both in performance and in script. There’s a fascinating dichotomy between them as Tristan is much more of the easy-going, as-one-feels, sort of individual of the two, though Keys plays with captivating reason and charisma. There’s a sort of evident logic behind his charm that drives his energy. Likewise, Connie speaks in a matter-of-fact manner that is made emotional and frenetic through Danko’s performance. Not only does this make for solid chemistry between Keys and Danko, but it makes their individual characters fascinating on their own rights as well. What I found really fascinating was watching these performances change as the medication they’re taking increases in dosage. The changes are subtle at first, but their later selves are nothing short of explosive in their intensity. The ends results are that the two play perfectly off one another; there’s never a moment where I don’t buy their growing bond (clinical medication aside). Intimacy is the word that comes to mind, though it’s not always romantic in nature. It’s as if we, the audience, are made to witness something private that should only stay between these characters despite the highly monitored situation in which they have placed themselves.
Overseeing the trial are Dr. Lorna James (Rebecca Robinson), the main doctor involved with Connie and Tristan’s treatment and wellbeing, and Dr. Toby Sealey (Rommel Sulit), the man behind the new antidepressant being tested. As the face of the experiment for the test subjects, Robinson carries herself with the professionalism expected of the situation. She’s not above connecting with her patients, as well as partake in some occasional condescension towards Tristan and Connie’s relationship, but there is a noticeable distance maintained at all times. Though as more about Lorna’s past is revealed, particularly her previous encounters with Toby, Robinson indulges in the visceral frustration that one can’t help but find relatable. True, there’s the natural inclination in us to want to side against her at times as both a figure of authority and an obstacle for Connie and Tristan, but her anger is justifiable and believable. Meanwhile, Sulit excels at balancing Toby’s authority over the whole trial as the manufacturer and the ignorance that comes with his separation from the lab and his desires to push his product. Sulit maintains a laidback gravitas that’s not dissimilar to modern CEO’s who act as the grand figureheads of their companies. And yet, when faced with obstacles and contradictions his temperament is quick to switch to the defensive. And similar to Keys and Danko, there’s instant onstage chemistry between Robinson and Sulit. From there first scene together there’s another subtlety in their inflections and glances to suggest they have history best left forgotten, but maintain the professionalism demanded of them. All in all, there’s no one in the cast who drops a beat or feels miscast. They’re a fantastic ensemble that play beautifully off of one another.
There’s a lot to be said and considered within this script about the fragility of the brain, the morality behind human testing, and how much weight we place on our emotions as mere biological impulses. Like all good scripts that ask questions of their characters and audiences, there are no correct answers but that doesn’t dampen the thoughts evoked from the conversations. The Effect is a playful wonder at one moment and a philosophical scare the next, but it never surrenders its ingenuity of storytelling and production values. As expected from her previous work, Lily Wolff has directed another outstanding piece of insightful, entertaining theatre that you’d be remiss to miss.
The Effect by Capital T Theatre continues playing at the Hyde Park Theatre every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm until June 17th.