In the world premiere of Informed Consent, the fact that a genetic anthropologist violates the trust of the Havasupai tribe is more heartbreaking than her personal reason for doing so: She’s in a race against time to find a cure for early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play, running through Sunday at Cleveland Play House’s Second Stage, is a co-production with Geva Theatre Center of Rochester, N.Y. It is directed by Sean Daniels, director of artistic engagement for Geva.
Laufer’s drama, which was presented previously as a staged reading at Cleveland Play House, was developed over the last year for a world premiere, mainstage production. The play’s main character, Jillian, is deeply conflicted because she knows she carries the gene for early-onset Alzheimer’s. She sees science as not only her salvation, but her 4-year-old daughter’s, who may carry the gene.
Under Daniels’ direction, actress Jessica Wortham makes it abundantly clear that her scientist character is passionate about finding a cure for both early-onset Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The latter disease is the real reason she is working with the Havasupai tribe of the Grand Canyon, whose numbers have been dwindling due to diabetes.
But the play presents a disconnect when it comes to Jillian’s family relationships, which don’t feel genuine: I never really bought into her personal turmoil as she lives in fear of discovering her daughter may have the Alzheimer’s gene.
Cleveland Play House artistic director Laura Kepley said the conflict between Jillian’s work and home life has been brought into sharper focus as Laufer has worked on the play over the last year. Yet I was unable to feel empathy for Jillian regarding her daughter: This character is written as a mother who’s afraid to get too close to her preschooler because she doesn’t want the little girl to need her too much.
At Wednesday night’s performance, that revelation simply came across as hollow. Jillian doesn’t know how to play with her child and sees children’s birthday parties as something foreign. She tells cold stories of genetics to her child at bedtime, so we don’t feel the warmth of her love.
It doesn’t help that in this ensemble cast of five, the adult Larissa FastHorse steps in to represent little girl Natalie a couple of times. Otherwise, Jillian and husband Graham (the endearing Fajer Al-Kaisi) are speaking to a daughter who is unseen.
Based on real life
The Havasupai give Jillian permission to run tests on their blood for diabetes, but not for additional tests to find evidence of interbreeding and migratory patterns, studies she is certain will help her find a cure for Alzheimer’s. The play’s story is based on a real-life court case the Havasupai brought against Arizona State University over unauthorized blood tests.
This is a play with big ideas and big questions about the myth of race, the commonhood of man (we’re 99.9 percent alike genetically) and the ethics of science. It’s ironic that Jillian is an idealist who says all humans are cousins genetically, yet she is entirely cavalier about the belief of the Havasupai — an “unpolluted gene pool” — that they have lived in the Grand Canyon for all of time.
“You don’t really believe that, do you?’’ she patronizingly asks tribe member Arella.
Actress FastHorse, who is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, does a good job bringing to life college-educated Arella’s distrust of the “white man.’’
The fast-talking Jillian may be the smartest person in the room, but she is blind to the fact that she is damaging an ancient culture’s belief system, publicly contradicting their “creation story,” as her anthropologist colleague says.
The set by Michael Raiford is dominated by a stone-like backdrop that evokes the canyon wall. It’s a constant reminder of the Havasupai people and the importance of their oral history as the play questions whether our identity comes from our biology or our memories.
In keeping with that storytelling, in several transition scenes the cast took turns reading notecards to represent key moments in life, including meeting a spouse, having a baby and losing a loved one. This narrative device, with a different-colored card for each subject, proved to be distracting.
In the end, I would have been more invested in Jillian’s character if Wortham hadn’t delivered her lines in such a manic, frenetic manner. If Jillian were allowed moments to simply breathe, the weight of what she is trying to accomplish as a mother — who happens to be a scientist — would have more impact.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.