Thursday, June 21, 2018
Stage

Review: Engaging premise goes to waste in American Stage's 'Informed Consent'

ST. PETERSBURG

From its unveiling nearly a year ago as part of the current American Stage season, Informed Consent showed promise.

This one-act would dive into the historical tension between science and religion. Through the lens of a landmark court case pitting an American Indian tribe against a university over genetic research, the play would explore power and myth-making, ask hard questions and challenge audiences to come up with their own answers.

That is not exactly what happens here. Instead, this production delivers a thin, didactic screed that despite its best efforts fails to engage the mind. Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer raises interesting questions, or starts to, then turns the narrative over to ill-advised hodgepodge of devices, including nameless ensemble cast members who loom out of the shadows to chant genome sequences, an apparent reference to the quasi-religious attachment we have with science.

This kind of self-infatuated argumentation, with which the story begins and ends, is just one of many examples showing why Informed Consent disappoints, content with allowing mostly threadbare characters to make pronouncements that are supposed to represent actual people. If there is a contrast worth noting, it is the gulf between what this play promises and what it delivers.

The production directed by Benjamin T. Ismail has strengths. Jerid Fox's sterile set hints at a lives dominated by the laboratory, up to and including a suspended round tube at ceiling level that looks like a microscope lens. Juliana Davis turns in a solid performance as Jillian, the only character invested with any kind of nuance. The same cannot be said of the rest of the cast, although Melanie Souza as Jillian's mother and the others all have tolerable moments.

Jillian is the driving force, a genetic anthropologist who persuades her boss to let her study a tribe of Havasupai Indians who show high rates of diabetes. Her mother had died of early-onset Alzheimer's, and her motives in promoting genetic research are both academic and personal.

She arrives at their home of the canyon dwelling tribe by helicopter, ready to draw blood that might unlock their secrets. But it's a struggle. A spokeswoman for the tribe, Arella (Dana Segal), allows the testing to go forward only reluctantly.

"We believe our blood is sacred," she tells the scientist. Apparently there's no time to get into why. The researcher responds with incredulity. So begins a tug-of-war between the methods of myth and science, both of which also carry different notions of history. Is it in our genes or what our elders told us?

As in the 2004 civil case between the tribe and the Arizona Board of Regents, the diabetes study yielded little useful information. Researchers later submitted DNA from their subjects for unrelated studies delving into schizophrenia, migration and inbreeding — all taboo topics. The tribe argued that such unauthorized use of their DNA violated their civil rights and confidentiality.

Running parallel is Jillian's onset of Alzheimer's, something she had predicted and from which she would like to shield her own daughter. At the height of her crisis she has an epiphany, suddenly deciding that "stories of our family" are just as valuable as genetic research, and, "We have our own stories to tell."

Like most other aspects of Informed Consent, this monumental development is more stated than felt. The audience rose to its feet at the end and cheered, including a few who had dozed or slept through parts of it.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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