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A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Theater Review: Geva Theatre Center's "Informed Consent" 

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Race is clearly a topic of interest at Geva. It is addressed very obviously in the recent "Clybourne Park," and more subtly in "Informed Consent," a brand-new play by Deborah Zoe Laufer in its world-premiere production. To make a very rough generalization, one play deals with race in terms of society, the other in terms of science. Both plays raise interesting questions, even if they don't have any answers.

click to enlarge Informed Consent
  • PHOTO BY KEN HUTH
  • Jessica Wortham, Larissa FastHorse, Gilbert Cruz, Tina Fabrique, and Fajer Al-Kaisi (left to right) in Geva’s “Informed Consent.”

Part of the action of "Informed Consent" is based on fact. In 1990, the isolated Havasupai Tribe, living at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, gave blood samples to academic researchers who were trying to study the tribe members' DNA to find clues to the tribe's devastating rise in diabetes. When the tribe found out that the university had used the DNA for other purposes (including genetic research that contradicted the tribe's history of its origins), the Havasupai sued the university, successfully.

Playwright Laufer uses this story, with its background of a violation in trust between the university and the tribe, more or less as it happened, and adds a complementary plot centering on the lead scientist in the research. The scientist's mother died in her 30s of Alzheimer's Disease; the scientist is certain to inherit it, and her young daughter is likely to as well. A test will give the answer for the daughter, but the scientist and her husband differ over whether to take it -- she wants to know the truth, he can live with the uncertainty.

The two stories play off of each other well, but Laufer adds quite a bit more: the cast members often go out of character, offering seemingly random comments on the topics covered, and even on each other. At intervals they also read cards with answers to questions posed to a previous audience, such as, "How did you feel when someone close to you died?" This may sound more confusing than it actually is; the difference between the two plots and the commentaries is always clear, though frankly I found the working-out of the plots more engaging.

As mentioned, this Geva production is the world premiere of "Informed Consent," so it is possible that the play you see will be slightly different from the play I saw. (In fact, Laufer's use of audience comments probably ensures that.) It will have in common, however, a simple but telling set by Michael Raiford; clear, well-paced direction by Sean Daniels; and an engaging cast, listed simply as 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. In addition to taking on miscellaneous small roles and individual lines, each actor creates a well-defined character: Fajer Al-Kaisi as Gillian's husband (Laufer makes him a children's book author, a nice touch in a play that begins and ends with the words, "Once upon a time"); Gilbert Cruz as her academic mentor, who carefully establishes trust with the Havasupai only to have it betrayed; Tina Fabrique as the university dean; and Larissa FastHorse as a member of the Havasupai tribe, who eloquently voices the group's continual betrayal by the white man.

"1" is Jessica Wortham as Gillian, the character who is the hinge on which the play rests. She is completely convincing as an overconfident scientist sure of the truth, a mother afraid for her daughter, and finally as a woman facing the consequences of her bad judgment -- and the inevitability of an early and agonizing death. About three-quarters of the way through the play, Gillian is defending her decision to use the Havasupai research before an academic board; she begins to hesitate and repeat herself, and her hands begins to tremble -- the first signs of Alzheimer's. Wortham plays this so well that it is a genuine shock. The play instantly goes from being interesting and engaging to emotionally wrenching, and it stays there until the end. There are many more reasons to see "Informed Consent" than that single scene. But that scene, and Wortham's performance in it, will stay with me for a long time.

Geva will present a fundraiser for Friends of Ganondagan this Friday, March 28, 6:30-10 p.m. at Geva Theatre Center. Tickets are $56 and include a reception, prologue and "Informed Consent" performance, and a talk-back panel discussion. Call the box office for more information.

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