“The Effect”—A Litmus Test for Love, at S.F. Playhouse
Lucy Prebble Exposes Scientific Fallacies
by Tyler Jeffreys
At S.F. Playhouse, the West Coast premiere of Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect” artfully explores the mysteries of love–with spectacular staging by Director Bill English. Prebble sets up an experiment using a hormone to fight depression— but does the hormone also make love blossom?
“The Effect” thrives on Nina Ball’s set design and Brooke Jennings’ costumes. Ball and Jennings join forces to create an eerie sci-fi wonderland. The angular room boasts five flat screen televisions embedded in the back wall. The screens intrigue us with florescent brain images, heart rate lines, and dosage updates.
Cool, hypnotic LED lights shine down from the octagonal lighting fixture, spreading a blue glow. Two test subjects wear matching, futuristic sweat suits, white and grey with black mesh. (I want one of those hella cute suits!)
Silent stage hands are dressed in ominous black nurse uniforms. What nurses wear black?
A big pharmaceutical corporation is conducting research for the perfect antidepressant pill. The big lab is recruiting young people to take the drugs under supervision for four weeks. Risking their lives for some easy cash, Tristan Frey (charming Joe Estlack) and Connie Hall (defensive Ayelet Firstenberg) volunteer.
According to Dr. Toby Sealey (smooth Robert Parsons) and Dr. Lorna James (persistent Susi Damilano), the pill releases a surge of dopamine in our brains—but so does Love.
But are emotions just brain chemistry? Shakespeare asserts that soulmates defy calculation:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
. . . . .
Love alters not with his [Time’s] brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
Like Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Connie fumble their way into love, rebelling against the lab’s scientific protocols. Estlack’s adorable Tristan flashes Connie a grand smile as he begins his flirtatious pursuit. Connie ain’t having it. Her practical, no nonsense attitude amps up Tristan’s animated advances.
However, their cute cat and mouse game interferes with the lab tests. Wary of the drug’s effects, they don’t know whether they feel true love or the drug.
Eastlak delivers potent puppy-love energy, keeping the chemistry flowing.
These Doctors believe love is just a feeling. Dr. Sealy says, “Emotions aren’t real.” Finally, a morally frustrated Dr. Lorna yells at Dr. Toby, “You can’t create emotions, Toby!”
Director Bill English gives us desperate Dr. Lorna, staring at a bloody pink brain, exclaiming, “Is this all I am? A three-pound lump of jelly?” Like Hamlet, she holds the brain up to the sky and unleashes her confusion about who she is, in a touching and passionate appeal.
“The Effect” asks the universal question: What is love?
I don’t even think Alexa or Siri can answer that one.
“The Effect” by Lucy Prebble, directed by Bill English, scenic design by Nina Ball, costume design by Brooke Jennings, at San Francisco Playhouse, San Francisco, through Saturday, April 28, 2018. Info: sfplayhouse.org
Cast: Susi Damilano, Ayelet Firstenberg, Joe Estlack, and Robert Parsons.
Here’s another review about science you might like: “Hela” by TheatreFirst.