Even if the world premiere play’s title, The Cancellation of Lauren Fein, did not give away the fate of its central character, there is an inevitability to the metaphorical noose relentlessly tightening around her neck.
Justice may not be well-served by the escalating accusations against the renowned genetic biology professor, but theatrical impact certainly is. For more than “theater to think about,” Palm Beach Dramaworks’ guiding mission, Christopher Demos-Brown has given us theater to grab us by the throat.
A fictional tale ripped from the headlines, The Cancellation of Lauren Fein is part courtroom drama, part whodunnit and part skewering of academia’s “diversity, equality and inclusion” policies. The combination makes for a compelling evening of theater that deserves a life far beyond South Florida.
Tenured professor Fein, short-listed for a Nobel Prize for her breakthrough efforts to cure sickle cell anemia, brings in millions of dollars in grants to her university. Her position should be secure, but when she is accused anonymously of racially offensive remarks, a barrage of more serious accusations including sexual abuse of a student follows, triggering a formal university hearing.
Demos-Brown, a practicing Miami attorney, knows the DEI landscape well, having participated in several such cases. He lends an authenticity to the hearing scenes, even as they devolve into shouting matches. In particular, Fein does not help her case by being goaded into flippant and profane responses.
As a lesbian married to a professor of theater arts, who have jointly raised an African-American foster child — now teenaged — Fein’s personal details will prove significant in her downfall in this intricately plotted tale. Matching the narrative step by step is the crafty direction by Margaret M. Ledford, propelling the production like a satisfying page-turner.
Niki Fridh heads the exceptional ensemble cast as Lauren Fein, a woman obsessed with her potentially life-saving research. She knows her value to the university and cannot fathom it taking action against her for what begins as a seemingly petty grievance. Fridh conveys an air of privilege, while spiraling down into victimhood — a tricky balancing act.
Diana Garle makes her PBD debut as Fein’s Hispanic wife, devastated as she witnesses the partner she loves self-destruct. Steven Trovillion gives a vivid portrait of a folksy defense attorney, increasingly frustrated by the hearing’s rules of evidence and by the tangential minutiae raised by dogged prosecutor Lindsey Corey.
Other standouts in the cast include Barbara Sloan as the presiding judge, barely keeping the proceedings from erupting into chaos, Bruce Linser as a flamboyant drama teacher with possible ulterior motives for his testimony and Karen Stephens as the newly appointed humanities dean, torn between allegiances to longtime friend Lauren and her institutional responsibilities.
Anne Mundell’s scenic design is minimalist, with most of the location setting handled by Adam J. Thompson’s stage-wide videos, which help to emphasize the cinematic nature of Demos-Brown’s script. Adding to the production’s changing reality levels and emotional moods is Kirk Bookman’s expert lighting.
With the company’s increased emphasis on developing new work, it has come up with an unqualified winner, a sensational cautionary tale of cancel culture run amok.
THE CANCELLATION OF LAUREN FEIN, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sun., Feb. 18. $89. 561-514-4042.