Lucy Prebble’s groundbreaking depression play makes its American premiere.
When Connie and Tristan meet in the unlikeliest of places—an antidepressant drug trial performed on healthy, non-depressed volunteers—they immediately hit it off. Between psychological tests, getting blood drawn and the overwhelming boredom of being shut in for weeks on end, their protracted flirtation grows into something much more meaningful. But as the drug begins to take effect and the trial subjects experience the mood-enhancing abilities of an antidepressant, the two volunteers and their worried doctors must decide: is this love real, or is it just a side effect?
Lucy Prebble's The Effect first premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2012, and is only now making its North American debut at Barrow Street Theatre under the direction of David Cromer. The exceedingly clever text couldn't have come to America at a better time, with mental illness and the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry ever present in our national conversation. And Prebble's play excels in a particularly fascinating way by taking all of our philosophical arguments about depression and medication and making them personal.
For Connie and Tristan, who are in a double-blind drug trial in which they soon begin to suspect that only one of them is on the real antidepressant, the question of whether they can trust their own emotions couldn't be more important. Does depression fundamentally change who someone is, or does the drug counteracting the disease do that? Meanwhile, for their doctors Lorna James, a talk therapist, and Toby Sealey, a pharmaceuticals spokesman, whether depression is a treatable disease of the brain or if it's all just about the placebo effect takes on added significance as we learn about their shared past and history with the disorder.
Unfortunately, Lorna and Toby's story is introduced too late for the audience to connect with them as deeply as they do with the pair of young lovers. Kati Brazda's Dr. Lorna James has an unassertive, forgettable presence onstage that makes perfect sense for the fragile woman but is difficult to connect with—but perhaps that is the point—while Steve Key's brazen Dr. Toby Sealey is as frustrating in his confidence in the new antidepressant (when no one else feels the same) as he is inspiring in his belief in scientific progress.
Susannah Flood as sensible Connie and Carter Hudson as free spirit Tristan are a perfect match, their early flirtation honest and charming enough to overcome some of the struggles with lab equipment and Prebble's instantaneous scene transitions that delay the first few scenes. Connie and Tristan's repartee is quick and biting, while their declarations about the nature of love, life and brain chemistry have the audience audibly reacting all evening. This production has made the choice to Americanize the original British script, and most if not all of the humor translates, but regardless of the jokes one cannot help but laugh at the increasingly absurd situations the characters find themselves in.
Once Connie learns who is on the real drug and who is on the placebo, however, the budding relationship begins to deteriorate in a pattern as frustrating as it is completely believable. What is less obvious is how the two delinquents have managed not to get kicked out of the drug trial in the first place, from Tristan getting caught smoking to violating the impartiality of the double-blind experiment. We can infer how desperately Lorna needs this job and how willing Toby is to overlook any flaws in his new designer drug, but without a raising of the stakes, Connie's ultimate decision to break all the rules for love is not as clear as it could have been.
Aided by an innovative production design, however, it is the strengths of The Effect that shine. The set, a clinical yet still homey institution is completed by a beautiful mural painted on the wall of the old insane asylum, fully visible to the audience throughout the show. Subtle lighting complements the stage well, while the few scenes that capture the young lovers in silhouette—in the abandoned asylum or by the light of their contraband cell phones—capture the magic of this production perfectly. And the simple yet effective use of projections, documenting dosage increases, psychological tests and one particular forbidden tryst, immerses the audience in the scientific, clinical world of a drug trial that is nonetheless undermined by love.
And was it all real? Rather than seeking to answer that question, The Effect transcends it entirely by forcing our quartet of characters into the real world where they must learn to take care of one another in a different way. Rather than presenting a solution, Prebble's play serves as a conversation starter, encouraging the audience to challenge their assumptions of who takes antidepressants, why and what effect they truly have.
The Effect plays at Barrow Street Theatre through June 19.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.