Early last year, actress Angelina Jolie underwent a preventive double mastectomy.
Because of an inherited gene mutation, doctors estimated that she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.
“I am writing about it now,” Jolie said in a recent New York Times op-ed, “because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience.”
Jillian, the protagonist in Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “Informed Consent,” tells a similar story, but has even loftier reasons for doing so. Jillian is a genetic anthropologist devoted to finding a cure for early onset Alzheimer’s, the inherited disease that took her mother and will likely overtake her and her young daughter. Her career is, quite literally, her life.
In order to expand the issue of genetic predisposition beyond the personal purview of one individual and explore the ethical implications of modern science, the playwright tells Jillian’s story against a broader backdrop.
Jillian has been brought in to conduct a study on the isolated Havasupai Indian tribe that lives on the floor of the Grand Canyon. The tribe has a high rate of type 2 diabetes and is dying out. After getting the tribe’s reluctant consent to sample the blood of each member, Jillian runs and reports additional and unauthorized studies on schizophrenia, inbreeding and migration patterns that undermine the tribe’s trust, their sense of cultural identity and their long-held sacred stories.
Informed Consent – co-produced with Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y., and currently on stage at Cleveland Play House – raises many intriguing and timely questions. Among them: Are we defined by our DNA? Does scientific discovery trump invasion of privacy? Will knowledge of our biological predispositions change how we live our lives?
The one-act 105-minute play is very well researched, grounded in an actual court case between the Havasupai Indian tribe and genetic researchers at Arizona State University, and informed by panel discussions with experts, interviews with members of various native tribes, and time spent in libraries and DNA laboratories.
All this has the potential of resembling a yawn-inducing, fact-saturated Discovery Channel report or a melodramatic Lifetime expose. Fortunately, the playwright and director Sean Daniels squeeze all the simultaneously disclosed science, personal crisis and philosophical debate into a beautifully woven, cleverly conceived and highly entertaining tapestry of storytelling.
The performers first appear as a troupe of storytellers and include Jessica Wortham, who takes on the role of Jillian; Dajer Al-Kaisi as Jillian’s husband, Graham; Larissa Fasthorse as Jillian’s daughter and Arella, a tribal spokesperson; Tina Fabrique as Jillian’s mother and the spirit of a tribal ancestor; and Gilbert Cruz as Ken, the social anthropologist who invited Jillian to work with the Havasupais.
They are all thoroughly engaging and convincing in their portrayals, but Wortham as Jillian is breathtaking. She brings incredible complexity and dimension to her character and has devised a speech pattern and physicality that captures the urgency of a woman whose DNA is a ticking time bomb.
Much of the play’s clever and often comedic dialogue overlaps, creating an understated musicality that softens the presentation of hard science and allows the short scenes to rhythmically flow from one to the next. This is complemented by Matt Callahan’s sound design, which helps establish a vivid sense of place despite the stage remaining unchanged throughout the performance.
All this occurs on Michael Raiford’s magnificent, multi-tiered set that resembles a towering terra cotta rock formation in the Arizona wasteland. Even when the storytelling becomes introspective and personal, we never lose sight of the bigger picture about cultural identity.
Strategically scattered on the stage and representing the chromosomal building blocks found on the double helix of DNA are rectangular boxes that serve as seating and storage. They glow as well, becoming an important part of Brian J. Lilienthal’s dramatic lighting design that helps isolate actors as they tell their stories.
Each person, we are told in this play, is genetically only 0.1 percent different from the person next to us. We are all cousins. Jillian’s dance with early onset Alzheimer’s is meant to give us pause. Jolie’s double mastectomy most certainly does.
Informed Consent is the centerpiece to Cleveland Playhouse’s 2014 New Ground Theatre Festival, having sprouted from a play reading at last season’s festival.
WHAT: “Informed Consent”
WHERE: The Second Stage, PlayhouseSquare in downtown Cleveland
WHEN: Through May 18
TICKETS: $15 - $72, 216-241-6000 or clevelandplayhouse.com