Review presented by UMB Private Wealth Management
Forty-five years of anything is a true testament to resilience and commitment. At the Unicorn Theatre, a play devoted, in many ways, to the persistence of human mind and spirit, opens the 45th season. “The Effect,” by English author Lucy Prebble and directed by Kansas City theater don dada Sidonie Garrett, runs now through September 30, in the intimate Jerome Stage space.
It can be argued that any live theater is a social experiment. That is why the stage is the perfect medium for a show that centers its audience with “Experiment Begins”. Two young, listless drifters—one drifting geographically, the other emotionally—meet in the physical and operational confines of a clinical trial.
Tristan (Rufus Burns) is a puppy-natured guy with grand dreams of continuous flight. He wants to go, go, go, visiting this tree and that cloud any and everywhere around the world. Until he meets Connie (Amy O’Connor) and learns what it means to want to settle. Oh, this chick is concrete for his feet, a good platform to stand on—sturdy in her position, measured in her perspective, and seemingly impermeable in her heart. Until she succumbs to Tristan and learns what it means to want to soar. They both learn to want.
Or do they?
The entire plot is predicated on the idea that love may be re-created by a drug. That re-creation could mean that what arises in behavior and in sentiment are false. Or, it could mean the greatest medical find in all of human history: to love, unconditionally, with a little help.
Though smart to use notions of depression and other mental anomalies to explore the ideas of soul, mind, self and God, “The Effect” isn’t simply about mental stress. It’s about something far more frightening: connection. To engage with the potential perils of the mind, to be affected by the ebb and flow of emotion is crazy-making. Yet, somehow, it’s exciting to stay, thrilling to live connected. This play is about redefining the capacity to love; redefining the lengths love can travel.
Because of the minimalism of production—simple set, understated costumes, and story-bound light design—the playwright’s ideas, the true star of the piece, concerning the inner world and its effect on the outer world are able to take center stage. But nothing drives the point more than Dr. Lorna James and Dr. Toby Sealey, the greatest asset, and possibly, weakness of the show.
Dr. James (Manon Halliburton) runs the clinical trial. She functions as the anchor for all thematic contributions. Each character is funneled through her. It takes a badass to carry such gravity. Halliburton might consider changing her name to Atlas.
Yet, Todd Lanker’s Brenden Frasier-esque delivery brings lightheartedness and humility to a brilliant, thoughtful, but somewhat smutty man, elevating his performance and the play with him. At first, it’s tempting to tune him out, but no need, it is through him that Prebble communicates her most compelling philosophies.
What becomes problematic about these two doctors in opposition to Tristan and Connie is that the need of the two patients drive the story. They are the entertainment. They are there to examine human relations and the backdrop of a medical test is rife with organic energy to the goal. And if that weren’t enough, they even get fleshy. Burns with his physique and O’Connor with her cute little figure. It’s impossible to turn away.
Even with that, Drs. James and Sealey remain more interesting, more effective. This imbalance means the play has been transformed from a story to a lesson. The ideas are more important than what happens. It could indicate that some part of this social experiment has gone awry.
In its best light, “The Effect” searches the power of human desire and then throws some fascinating questions against what is discovered.
The Effect at the Unicorn Theatre, Jerome Stage
September 8, through September 30
Directed by: Sidonie Garrett
With: Rufus Burns, Amy O’Connor, Manon Halliburton, and Todd Lanker
Producing Artistic Director: Cynthia Levin