SR review: “The Effect” at Strawdog Theatre Company

Love is a drug, or vice versa, in Strawdog’s intoxicating staging of Lucy Prebble’s emotional experiment

Theater review by Kris Vire

Sam Hubbard and Daniella Pereira in The Effect

What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me for putting that Haddaway earworm in your head, but that elemental question is one of the major underpinnings of Lucy Prebble’s striking 2012 drama, now onstage at Strawdog in a terrific Chicago premiere.

The Effect centers on Tristan (Sam Hubbard) and Connie (Daniella Pereira), two young strangers who meet as test subjects for a drug trial. They’re among a larger group of paid volunteers who’ve committed four weeks of their lives to closely monitored dosages of a new antidepressant.

They’re overseen by Dr. James (Justine C. Turner), who we soon learn has some qualms about antidepressants herself. Dr. James is in turn supervised by Dr. Sealey (Cary Shoda), who strongly believes in psychiatric medication—but also has a direct financial stake in the new drug’s success. James and Sealey have their own history and secrets that are parceled out over the course of the plot.

Sam Hubbard and Daniella Pereira in The Effect

While the doctors are debating the science and ethics of depression, Connie and Tristan are flirting and falling hard for each other, despite Connie’s protestations about her boyfriend in the outside world. Soon, the two are flouting the trial’s regulations in order to stay in contact and see more (and more) of one another. They’re reduced to acting like giddy, impulsive teenagers. But they are, after all, part of an experiment that’s literally altering their brain chemistry—so can they trust their own emotions, or could they be artificially enhanced? And what if one of them is actually in the placebo control group?

British playwright Prebble is best known around these parts as the author of Enron. A sort of Schoolhouse Rock of American financial malfeasance, that play was a massive hit in London but didn’t go over so well in New York; I was fairly unmoved by TimeLine’s 2012 production as well. (Prebble is also now a producer and writer for HBO’s Succession, which I will get around to starting as soon as the theater slows down.)

Justine C. Turner and Daniella Pereira in The Effect

The Effect has Enron’s grandly cerebral POV but applies it at human scale; the ideas being tossed around are just as vital—we’re talking about whether drugs that smooth our psyches also alter our identities—but they’re easier to map onto our own lives and minds.

Prebble’s plotting is a bit schematic, but that seems purposeful; director Elly Green generally uses the graph-paper neatness to her production’s advantage. Pereira and Hubbard radiate a persuasive and charming chemistry, but their characters are the guinea pigs here; it’s Turner’s layered, conflicted and wholly moving turn as Dr. James that yields clinically proven results.


The Effect

Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave). By Lucy Prebble. Directed by Elly Green.

Cast: Sam Hubbard (Tristan Frey), Daniella Pereira (Connie Hall), Cary Shoda (Dr. Toby Sealey), Justine C. Turner (Dr. Lorna James).

Designers: Yeaji Kim (scenic and projections), Claire Chrzan and John Kelly (lighting), Tristin Hall (fight and intimacy coordinator), Leah Hummel (costumes), Isaac Mandel (sound), Hillarie M. Shockey (props). Stage manager: Madeline M. Scott.

Running time: 2 hours; intermission. Through November 23. Tickets ($35) at strawdog.org.

Photographs by Jesus J. Montero.


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