August 29, 2015

"Informed Consent" Asks Smart Questions

Are we humans the creation of a Supreme Being or just the product of genetic mutation? Should a benefit for the larger good supersede the rights of a small group? Is race just a construct or do cultural differences separate even those who love across color lines? These are just some of the questions that Deborah Zoe Laufer asks in Informed Consent, her compelling new play which is running at Primary Stages through Sept. 13.

Laufer explores these conundrums through the lens of a real-life case in which the Havasupai Indians, a Native American tribe that has lived for centuries at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, sued Arizona State University for violating the tribe’s beliefs by using samples of their blood for purposes for which the tribe had not given its permission (click here to read more about the case).

Although she has based her main characters on the female geneticist who conducted the disputed studies and a native woman who becomes a spokesperson for her people, Laufer has given her fictional stand-ins attributes that underscore the fact that each woman is fighting to preserve a fundamental sense of who she is. 

Arella, the Havasupai spokeswoman, is one of her tribe’s few college-educated members and she is torn between her devotion to the ancient beliefs of her people and an intense desperation to find a way to fight the diabetes ravaging her community. This causes her to urge the tribe members to donate the blood they consider sacred to the university research project with the hope that it will find a remedy for the disease that is killing them.

But Jillian, the scientist in the play, has other plans.  She is driven by the knowledge that she carries the gene for early-onset Alzheimer’s which killed her mother at just 34. She so desperately needs to believe that science has the power to cure all diseases that she ignores the advice of her mentor to respect the wishes of the tribe and also puts her work ahead of the husband and daughter she loves.

Informed Consent was spawned by a program, co-sponsored by Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, that commissions plays about science and technology. Laufer sticks close to the basic outline of the real case but her decision to change the focus of Jillian's research from schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s emphasizes the pivotal role that the stories we remember and tell about ourselves play in defining who we are (click here to listen to an interview about her process).

Laufer and her able director Liesl Tommy have also made sure that the intercultural conversation that defines the play carries over into its casting. Their five-member cast is the most racially inclusive I’ve seen in a longtime but the attention to diversity doesn’t seem at all self-conscious or heavy-handed.

Delanna Studi, a Native American actor whose family walked the Trail of Tears in which the Cherokee people were forced to migrate across the Mississippi River to present-day Oklahoma, brings a refreshing and resonant authenticity to the role of Arella.  

Similarly, Pun Bandhu gives some backbone to the beta male character of Jillian’s Asian-American husband, Myra Lucretia Taylor manages to stretch outside the stereotype of the no-nonsense black woman as the university dean and Jesse J. Perez is poignant as the mentor whose carefully cultivated relationship with the tribe is jeopardized by Jillian’s behavior.

But it is Tina Benko, a blonde beauty who has the heart and chops of a character actor, who anchors the show in a brilliant performance as Jillian. She nails both the intellectual arrogance that makes this single-minded woman a real pain in the ass and the social awkwardness that makes it a challenge for her to read a simple bedtime story to her child.

There are at times too many threads to keep track of in just a 90-minute show. And the presentational style of storytelling occasionally saps the tension out of the drama (having all the actors sit onstage all the time is becoming a theatrical cliché) but the genuine respect with which Laufer treats both sides of the faith vs. reason debate makes Informed Consent a smart choice for smart theatergoers.

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