There are two kinds of people in the world: People who get a pounding headache and jimmy legs watching TED talks, and those who happily sop up those pontificating excursions into arcane corners of science and culture. Count me among the latter group.
That may explain why I find Informed Consent now at the Cleveland Play House so thoroughly involving. Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer, the play plunges into the heady world of genetic anthropology with such puppy-like eagerness, it's hard for lecture nerds like me to resist.
The production, which has traveled intact from its world premiere showing last month in Rochester, N.Y., features five slightly arch yet effective performances. However, a heinous occurrence during the curtain call almost ruined the whole megillah.
The play begins in a theatrically inauspicious manner, with scientist Jillian addressing the audience, explaining how "we're all cousins" on a cellular level, since we're 99.9% the same biologically. Some may quibble with the exact percentage, but her point is that the human family is a sprawling collection of kinfolk who insist on dividing ourselves based on the fraction of one percent that differentiates us into "races." Those air quotes are used frequently in this production.
The play shifts back and forth from lecturing to snatches of dialog as we follow Jillian's professional and personal journey. In a story based on an actual event, she is given an opportunity to do a diabetes research study on the isolated Havasupai tribe. But she uses that chance to explore genetic information related to her own battle with a familial tendency for acquiring early-onset Alzheimers.
Trouble is, Jillian's extracurricular research leads her to information that contradicts the tribe's history of its origin, so the tribe sues the sponsoring university and tries to bring down her research project.
On the home front, the irritatingly up-front and intense Jillian marries easy-going Graham and they have a child. They proceed with a family even though Jillian warns Graham that she is likely—no, certain—to pass on that terrible neurological memory bomb, since her mother gave it to her via a specific genetic mutation.
Playwright Laufer assembles the scientific factoids with skill, and she deftly crafts the short bursts of conversation so that characters are developed quickly and believably. Plus, she utilizes the cast in many ways; they take on different characters while also reading comment cards from previous audiences' responses to questions ("How did you feel when someone close to you died?") that are handed out prior to the show.
Although the cast displays a certain smug superiority as a group, they do well individually. Fajer Al-Kaisi is warm and amusing as Graham and Tina Fabrique handles multiple roles nicely while singing a cappella in her stunning voice (she played Ella Fitzgerald at CPH previously). Larissa FastHorse has some telling moments as Arella, Jillian's main contact with the tribe, and Gilbert Cruz adds some heft as the supervising academic on Jillian's project.
In the central role of Jillian, Jessica Wortham is hard-edged and vulnerable in all the right places. She registers real fear at her slowly approaching demise, even as she pursues every bit of information. Her inner conflict, and her confrontation with the tribe, beautifully encapsulate the dilemma we all face: Do we want to learn more about our personal genomes, after we give "informed consent?" Do we want to make life decisions based on our cells?
This production eloquently delivers on all these questions thanks to the smooth direction by Sean Daniels. Unfortunately, he has seen fit to provide Wortham with a tissue to wipe away her tears during the curtain call. Even if an actor is overwhelmed by emotion after the curtain goes down, we needn't be alerted to it in this showy manner.
Dear Mr. Daniels, et al: As there is no crying in baseball, there is no tissue wringing during curtain calls. You have a fine show, so let the tears and snot flow as they will. We, and you, will be able to handle it.