What defines us: our bodies, or our most sacred stories? That’s the question ostensibly posed by Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Informed Consent, now playing at the Lantern Theater Company. It offers a neat little dichotomy, simple and familiar and comforting: biology (and science at large) versus stories (and myth, and belief, and faith).
But it also reveals what I can’t help but think is a tendency in modern theatre towards binary oppositions and simplistic dualities. Despite theatre’s stunning capacity to present multiple point of view, Informed Consent feels like it’s following in the footsteps of Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem (recently at the Wilma Theater), which similarly filed the complex questions surrounding science and belief into two opposing sides. Theatre is a place of the unfamiliar, a place that, as Bertolt Brecht pointed out, can distance and alienate and create an effect of estrangement that provokes thought. But Laufer (like Stoppard before her) tells a safe and familiar story, with each of its two sides sketched with quick strokes and mutilated beyond recognition.
Based on a real court case from the 2000s that established legal precedent for informed consent in DNA research, Informed Consent tells the story of genetic anthropologist Jillian, who convinces members of a Native American tribe to donate samples of their blood, which they believe is sacred, in the hope of finding the genetic cause of the extremely high prevalence of diabetes in the tribe. She herself, however, is a ticking genetic time bomb: She has an almost 100% chance of developing early onset Alzheimer’s, and, like the scientist in the real case, ends up using the tribe’s DNA samples for studies far beyond diabetes. Unlike the real scientist, she’s motivated less by a desire for scientific discovery than by a personal and obsessive desire to save her daughter from her own debilitating disease.
In researching this review, I looked up the original case, and, in a twist of irony that says everything about this play, the New York Times article on the case offers a more nuanced and compelling telling of this story, raising the actual complex ethical issues at play. By contrast, Informed Consent skews the two sides involved until the issues become unrecognizable; in fact, the play arguably deals with the issue of informed consent in DNA research only in order to neatly sidestep the conflict it began with: biology vs. belief. And though the play seems at first to provide equal airing to both views, the bias becomes immediately visible.
The play opens with Jillian telling her tale in basic fairy tale structure, beginning with a version of “once upon a time.” Behind her, the chorus stands within a sort of eye, or perhaps a double helix seen from above, chanting the letters of the base pairs of DNA: A,T,C,G. Jillian’s deepest belief is that our DNA is our story, and she tells this story of biology and genetics using the most ancient form of storytelling, the fairy tale – a theme that continues throughout the play. She is referred to as “the genetic anthropologist” in much the same way that fairy tales talk of the Wicked Witch. And in one of the more stunning moments, she tells her daughter a bedtime story of cells and DNA, juxtaposed with her husband (a children’s book writer) relating a traditional fairy tale.
Yet this creative mingling of biology and tale-telling soon reveals its flaws, as the desire to simplify the story into fairy-tale structure reduces both science and belief to caricatures. Jillian, compelling as she is made by Kittson O’Neill’s excellent acting, ultimately becomes a straw man for science overreaching. She endlessly repeats her mantra that race (from a genetic point of view) is just a myth, sounding like the very essence of educated privilege, particularly when she confronts the Native American, Arella, with these words. With her belief that science is in the mistakes, the accidents, scientists overstepping the bounds of what they originally intended to do in the name of discovery, she doesn’t seem to have a very good idea of how the scientific method actually works. She appears at first to be motivated by the pure desire of scientific discovery, yet eventually reveals herself to be almost pathologically obsessed with finding a cure for Alzheimer’s for her daughter, “no matter who got hurt.” It’s both a questionable representation of Science, and an emotional manipulation of the audience that prevents an actual, serious exploration of the issues surrounding informed consent.
On the other side stands Arella, a young woman who single-handedly represents both her entire tribe and the side of story and belief. Arella’s people believe they sprang from the Grand Canyon, and those are the stories that define their very identity; their blood and their stories are both sacred. The “White Man’s” science threatens that identity, even as it offers the possibility of saving them from their debilitating diabetes epidemic. The positioning feels disingenuous: the original case had 41 plaintiffs, but Laufer’s tribe is a monolithic entity single-mindedly pitted against the White Man and his scientific endeavor. And, rather than dealing with the dilemmas she inevitably faces when her belief conflicts with life-saving science, Arella instead throws the entire history of Native American oppression, summarized as if from a textbook, at Jillian (conveniently failing to note that diabetes is not a form of oppression). It’s a reductive summary of a complex and painful history of oppression.
Ultimately, the play buckles under the weight of its own subject. Placing the entire gargantuan issue onto the shoulders of Jillian and Arella, as if a single character can stand for an entire side of the issue, simply can’t sustain the complexity of the dilemma in question. Making both Arella and Jillian mothers worried about the debilitating effects of a specific disease on their daughters adds yet another level of sloppy writing, giving the parallel between them the subtlety of a frying pan to the head.
The result is that Laufer writes herself into a corner by opposing biology and belief, asking which of the two underlies our narrative. But the answer isn’t either-or, a fact Laufer’s writing fails to comprehend; the inescapable facts of genetics are not an alternative to belief, they shape one’s life as much as stories do. Nevertheless, forcing the narrative into a binary, Laufer feels compelled to work herself out of it by privileging the emotionally satisfying narrative at the cost of the scientific facts of the story, as glaring and inescapable as those are.
In fact, as I watched Informed Consent the night before Donald Trump’s inauguration, I couldn’t help meditating on the way that, in Laufer’s play, ignorance inevitably wins out over scientific fact because it’s more emotionally compelling. Even though there’s almost a 100% probability that Jillian herself will have early onset Alzheimer’s, her husband insists they don’t have her daughter tested for this genetic disease, because he wouldn’t be able to deal with the knowledge (she agrees in order to neatly tie up that thread of the play). The properly proper parents of Jillian’s daughter’s friends insist that they’d rather live in the bliss of ignorance. The tribe whose diabetes she tries to cure as they lose their limbs insist that they sprang from the Grand Canyon, resisting her genetic research, even if it might save them, because it conflicts with their beliefs. As the play wraps up and narrative seems to win out over science, the fact that this tribe is still dying, whether or not their beliefs are respected, is addressed by no one.
Over the next few days, as a new president was sworn in amid headlines of fake news and alternative truths, I couldn’t help wondering at the way science is caricatured, straw men abound, and scientific fact simplified and demonized in favor of a more compelling emotional truth – on the theatre stage and on the stage of the world.
So I find myself where I so often do as a theatre critic lately: in the position of criticizing simplistic writing but praising the staging and acting, both of which are excellent in themselves, and even more so when one considers what the actors had to work with.
Kittson O’Neill, who stunned in the one-woman play Grounded at Interact Theatre, stuns here again. This play, at the very least, allows her to display her skill in the full gamut of emotions – hope and fear and passion and despair. She renders Jillian a compelling individual insofar as a caricature of a scientist can be, and that’s high praise.
The cast is also wonderfully diverse and deeply skilled. Each of the other four individuals plays two roles, performing swift costume changes and stepping into a new character to carry the story. Samantha Bowling, in particular, should be lauded for the character she brings to what is an unsophisticated summary of the history of oppression; Lindsay Smiling brings about as much pathos as is possible to a character who adamantly rejects fact and truth in favor of the bliss of ignorance. Justin Jain and Maria Konstantinidis both switch between drastically different characters, playing alternatively the parents of Jillian’s daughter’s friend or the Dean and professor at the “large university in Arizona” where Jillian works.
Informed Consent is worth watching, if just for the skill of the actors, but don’t let the title fool you: that’s not what the play is really about.