Scientists tell us that all humans are genetically more than 99 percent identical. So, what is it that makes us different and individuals? That is the overwhelming question asked in the new play “Informed Consent” having its world premiere on the Second Stage of the Cleveland Play House at PlayhouseSquare.
Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer’s script has a talkative genetic anthropologist speaking directly to the audience with energy and enthusiasm. She wants to study an isolated tribe that lives on the floor of the Grand Canyon. In order to do so, she must get blood samples from them, which is against their society’s rules. The purpose of the research is to find a cure for diabetes, but scientist Jillian has an agenda of her own. This quest is the spine of “Informed Consent.”
Jessica Wortham is Jillian, the energized scientist who seems a bit flaky in her enthusiasm. The audience learns that time is of the essence in her case because her genetic makeup includes an inherited probability of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her mother died in her 30s, and Jillian’s daughter has had the threat passed on to her as well. Four other performers, diverse in gender, age and ethnicity, play a variety of roles as the play’s action quickly moves backward and forward in time to various locations.
Wortham’s Jillian is engaging to the audience. She makes us believe in her mission. We go along with her as she gets off track with little stories that are stopped by other characters. And when Jillian starts having lapses in her memory, we are painfully aware of the debilitating disease that is Alzheimer’s. These moments ring true because we’ve seen them in others and possibly in ourselves, too.
A complex character, Jillian does some ethically shady things with her tribal test subjects. She is meticulous in getting their permission for study, but they have different expectations of what kind of research is being done and what it is for. On the other hand, Jillian is a character with humor and a strongly likable personality. Other characters are drawn with wide brush strokes, and are people who reflect or bring out Jillian’s personality. Performerwise, each of the actors points the focus well toward the central character.
“Informed Consent” refers to the permission one grants for research and invasive procedures to do the research. The script asks the audience to research and make conclusions about the central character. The play does have some clunky theatrical devices. Some dialogue is broken up among the ensemble, working for a choral, chanting, almost primitive atmosphere. Milky plexiglass boxes change color and are almost musical in their effect. Otherwise, Michael Raiford’s set is deceptively simple and spartan. It actually reveals more of itself as the play unfolds.
An intermissionless ninety minutes long, “Informed Consent” had the opening night audience talking about the issues on the way out of the theater, and probably all the way home as well. It’s a good application of dramatic art. “Informed Consent runs through May 18 at the Second Stage.