Science has come under fire of late, most notably in the political arena. The rise of science deniers makes Informed Consent, the latest densely packed, morally ambiguous drama by Deborah Zoe Laufer particularly timely, while its core conflict between scientific truth and cultural belief systems give the play a timeless quality.
Laufer, whose work has been championed by Louis Tyrrell at Florida Stage and his other subsequent theater companies, often tackles weighty social issues and frames them in starkly human terms. So it is with this tale of a genetic anthropologist named Jillian, so certain of the importance of her research that she tramples on the dignity and spiritual tenets of her Native American subjects.
Informed Consent is a fictional account of an actual ethical – and ultimately legal – battle between the Havasupai tribe, a purposely isolated people who live at the base of the Grand Canyon, and Arizona State University. Commissioned to study the tribe and explore its predisposition to diabetes, Jillian manages to persuade its council to allow the donation of blood samples, a serious intrusion according to their religious beliefs.
Worse yet, without authorization Jillian uses the samples to test for the tribe’s likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The roots of dementia are an obsession of hers, you see, having lost her mother to the condition which Jillian herself — and perhaps her own daughter — is genetically disposed to develop.
Sifting through the emotionally charged specifics of the case could well have bogged down the play in medical jargon and legalese. Not only does Laufer nimbly avoid such traps, but in a compelling production at GableStage, she also directs it for maximum clarity while whipsawing the audience’s sympathies.
For starters, Laufer employs a highly theatrical device to convey the story, brought to life by a cast of five that addresses the audience directly, narrating on occasion and then assuming a variety of characters in a series of presentational sketches. Graver heads the troupe as Jillian, a source of audience empathy – particularly as she drifts into mental confusion – but also worthy of censure as she oversteps the ethical bounds and protocols of her research.
Also impressive in her GableStage debut is Francisca Munoz as Jillian’s wide-eyed innocent daughter Natalie and her tribal liaison Arelia, a force of dignity and pride. In support are Jovon Jacobs as Jillian’s husband Graham, as gentle and level-headed as she is strident, Carlos Orizondo as the sociologist who gets Jillian involved in the diabetes study and Elizabeth Dimon as stern university Dean Hagan.
Somehow, Laufer packs a lot of information about genetics in a mere intermissionless 95 minutes, asking questions about the limits of our quest for knowledge, questions for us to grapple with and take away from this heady, yet entertaining play.
INFORMED CONSENT, GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Through Sunday, Aug. 27. $45-$60. 305-445-1119.