All human DNA is 99.9 percent the same, and it is the 0.1 percent that makes everyone unique. For genetic anthropologist Jillian (Bethany Anne Lind), somewhere in her DNA is a mutation that causes early onset Alzheimer’s — the same mutation that caused her mother to forget her name before she was 40.
Now married to husband Graham (Neal Ghant), with a daughter of her own, Jillian wants to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, so that she can save her daughter from inheriting the disease. In the middle of research, Jillian’s co-worker Ken (Carey Curtis Smith) calls on her to conduct genomic testing on the Grand Canyon’s Havasupai tribe because they have a 50 percent rate of diabetes, which may be linked to a genetic mutation.
Serving as her guide into the tribe’s culture is Arella (Diany Rodriguez), who also has a 4-year-old daughter. The Havasupai view their blood as sacred and are hesitant to submit it to science, but Arella eventually convinces them to sign the consent forms for diabetes testing. But when Jillian takes their blood to conduct other types of research, the group threatens to sue Arizona State University over consent, much to the chagrin of Jillian’s dean (Tonia Jackson).
Based on real events that occurred between ASU researchers and the Havasupai, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play Informed Consent, directed by Lisa Adler, is onstage at Horizon Theatre through November 8.
The show features an ensemble cast of Atlanta theater standouts, who are fully committed to this murky material. Lind as Jillian captures the essence of a scientist who is emotionally distant and a mother who is emotionally desperate. Ghant is always a solid actor, in spite of the fact that the romantic chemistry between him and Lind is not there.
Jackson and Smith both play multiple characters, including Jillian’s mother and a housewife who is skeptical about genetic testing, with satisfying depth. And Rodriguez delightfully renders Arella with humor, dignity and grace.
Also worth mentioning is Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s beautiful and imaginative set, which doubles as a science lab and the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The stacked reddish-brown rocks nearly reach the ceiling in the small theatre, and cut out of them are backlit stairs that also serve as drawers and file cabinets. Background projections portray a double helix and indicate other locations, including Jillian’s home, a bookstore and lecture hall.
Laufer’s complex play pits belief versus science, and it is intriguing and entertaining, but there are parts that do not quite work despite Adler’s mostly successful efforts to make the script funny and digestible.
There is so much material to explore in the script. Laufer delves into the conflict between science and belief, scientific testing on people of color, genetics, memory and identity, which makes for a dense play that touches on a lot of things, but does not fully extrapolate anything.
For example, the play is framed as if the action is all in Jillian’s memory because she is trying to record her story and her research before she forgets everything. That framework, however, interrupts the more interesting story, how Jillian is willing to use Arella’s daughter as an experiment to save her own daughter, and how her ambition is creating a wedge between her and the daughter who she is trying to protect.
Within this framework, Laufer also aims to connect the genetic anthropologist’s motivation to find a cure for Alzheimer’s to the collection of the Havasupai’s blood, which makes the play feel like two shows in one.
Jillian says repeatedly in the script that we are all cousins, because DNA makes us more alike than different. What Laufer gets at, however, but does not fully unpack, is that the one thing everyone has in common is their freedom of choice — how people arrive at their choices is what makes them different.
Jillian is a white, educated scientist who has the luxury of relying on Western science’s facts. The Havasupai are impoverished, oppressed and dying, and the only things that they have to hold onto are their stories, which Jillian’s auxiliary research contradicts.
One thing that she does get at effectively is the idea of questioning differences as a form of white privilege. People of color do not have the same history of poking and prodding at white people the way that white people do to everyone else. In that same vein, white people have not had to bear the history of systematic oppression that comes with being a subject.
Arella even says to Jillian at one point during the play, “You take away our livelihood, and then mock us for eating the food that you ship in.” This scene is poignant and heart-wrenching, because the conflict between identity stories and scientific evidence comes to a head.
At its core, Informed Consent is a play about two women who want what is best for their daughters, and Jillian learns the hard way that where facts are limited, love is limitless.
Horizon’s production of the show, which just concluded off-Broadway, is a solid one, given Laufer’s sardined script. This is not the type of play that makes for a fun, relaxing night at the theater, but it is certainly a play that will be the subject of post-show coffee shop chatter.