Love is a drug

20Jun17

“The Effect” at Gloucester Stage

By MARK SARDELLA

Is there really such a thing as love? Or is it all just a matter of brain chemistry?

That is a question explored in The Effect, a play by Lucy Prebble at Gloucester Stage through July 8. But it’s far from the only question. The play also deals with issues related to trust, perception (its causes and effects), as well as depression and the ability – or perhaps lack thereof – of antidepressant drugs to improve lives.

The play also comes with a bit of star power. Academy Award nominee Lindsay Crouse plays Dr. Lorna James, a research psychologist hired by Dr. Toby Sealey (Saturday Night Live alum Brad Hall) to help him conduct a controlled drug test on a new anti-depressant.

Among the volunteers in the drug trial are Lucy (Susannah Hoffman) and Tristan (Mickey Solis) who develop feelings for each other over the course of their four-week residency at the research facility of a major pharmaceutical company.

But is their love real – caused by the natural attraction of two human beings – or is it the artificial result of heightened endorphins triggered by the gradually increased dosages of the antidepressant?

Dr. Sealey tells Dr. James that one of the pair is on a placebo – but she is not told which one, at least not at first. When both Connie and Tristan report experiencing similar feelings (vivid dreams, dizziness, agitation and heightened mental acuity) and their brain scans come back showing similar changes – is it the result of the drug in one of them and infatuation in the other? And what does it all mean?

Meanwhile, we learn that Drs. Sealey and James have more than just a professional history. How much of what each concludes about their experimental subjects is based in cold, hard science and how much is filtered through their own shared past?

As interesting as all those questions are, the play is not entirely dry and clinical. There are many moments of genuine humor, as in this exchange between Dr. James and Connie during her admittance interview.

DR. JAMES: Are you in a relationship?
CONNIE: Yup.
DR JAMES: Are you sexually active?
CONNIE: I have had sex. Um, I hope to have it again.
DR. JAMES: But you’re not having sex right now?
CONNIE: No, not right now.

The spare, stark set seems appropriate for the clinical setting, and it places the focus almost entirely on the actors. That’s a good thing, as director Sam Weisman allows his superb cast to alternately scale the giddy heights of first love and plumb the dark depths of depression with passionate authenticity.

And the emotions you’ll feel? They’re real.

The New England premiere of Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect” runs through July 8 at Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main St., Gloucester. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. with a special Wednesday matinee performance on Wednesday, July 5 at 2 p.m. Single ticket prices are $32 to $42 with discounts available for Preview Performances, Cape Ann Residents, Senior Citizens and Patrons 25 years old and under. In addition to regular reserved tickets, Pay What You Wish tickets are available for the Saturday, June 17 matinee at 2 pm. Pay What You Wish tickets can only be purchased day of show at the door. Purchase tickets online or call the Box Office at 978-281-4433.

[This review originally appeared in the June 20, 2017 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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