by Lynn on July 19, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Coal Mine Theatre, 2076 Danforth Ave, Toronto, Ont. Plays until July 30, 2023.

Written by Lucy Prebble

Directed by Mitchell Cushman

Lighting, set, and props by Nick Blais

Costumes by Cindy Dzib

Projection design by Jack Considine

Sound and composition by James Smith

Cast: Aris Athanasopoulos

Leah Doz

Jordan Pettle

Aviva Armour-Ostroff

Described as “a clinical romance” between two volunteers in a pharmaceutical drugs trial. The play explores the physical effects of love, ethics of medical experiments, trust and truth.

The Story. Tristan Frey and Connie Hall are two strangers who meet when both volunteer for a five week pharmaceutical trial of an anti-depressant drug. One of the conditions of the trial is that they cannot be depressed. The trial is to see the effect of the drug on a healthy person. Conducting the trial is Dr. Lorna James. She is meticulous in her experiments and objective in her demeanor. She reports to Dr. Toby Sealey, who does not take part in the trials, but looks over the data. Over the course of the trial Tristan and Connie fall in love. There are physical effects. Is it the drug or emotions or both?

The Production. The audience sits on both sides of the playing area. There is a screen on the stage left and right side of the space on which will be projections and notes made. Designer Nick Blais has done triple duty designing the lighting, set and props. The chairs for this are particularly inventive in that they can be reconfigured into other set pieces quickly and efficiently.

Dr. Lorna James (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) asks Connie (Leah Doz) a list of questions about her health and if she has depression or is pregnant. As played by Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Dr. James is matter of fact, perhaps almost humourless because she is so focused on being meticulous with her questions and investigation. As Connie, Leah Doz is understated—perhaps too much so initially because it was hard to hear what she was saying. She got louder as the play went along, but audibility at the beginning is important too. Connie seemed guarded at first and created a mystery about the character.

Dr. James then interviews Tristan (Aris Athanasopoulos). He is engaging, funny, impish and has the confidence of a person who knows the drill—he’s done the trials before. Dr. James knows when he’s joking but still keeps a straight face and cool demeanor.

Tristan and Connie meet and are attracted to each other when they have to ‘prepare’ a urine sample. He is more engaging that she is. Again, Connie is guarded. But over time, her defenses come down. They bond. The dose of the drug is increased. Both Connie and Tristan are experiencing rapid heart-rate, increased temperature, anxiety, perhaps lightheadedness. Are these the effects of the drug, falling in love or both? Connie and Tristan get reckless. They want to be together, but the rules say no. Is this feeling the drug or passion for the other? Interesting questions for the experiment and the play. Then matters ramp up. It’s no spoiler alert that one of them is on a placebo. But which one of Tristan or Connie is it?

Dr. Toby Sealey (Jordan Pettle) is a smooth ‘operator’, and Dr. James’ boss in the trials. She does the leg work and he reviews the data and doesn’t really get involved with the nitty gritty of the process. But there is still a piece of information that comes in Act II that would be a spoiler alert. What Dr. Sealey wants is the glory of the results. He seems to be the darling of conferences, attending them often, getting involved in dalliances and moving on. He’s divorced but announces to Dr. James that he’s engaged. It seems that Dr. James was one of his conquests years before. There is history between them, and lingering hurt on her side.

Jordan Pettle as Dr. Sealey is that gifted charmer who can excuse anything under the name of science. His lackadaisical attitude towards the experiments and how they might affect people  doesn’t interest him, as long as his reputation remains intact. He also knows how to ‘play’ and maneuver a person and that’s clear with regards to Dr. James. Again, Aviva Armour-Ostroff as Dr. James is a well of emotions that roil and overflow when her integrity and that of the experiments are in question. The acting to a person is excellent.

Mitchell Cushman directs this play with his usual depth of perception. There is an elegance and simplicity to Cushman’s direction. He realizes the complexity of the play with his clear direction of his cast and the production. He raises the bar on artistry and he takes his audience with him. Terrific all round.  

Comment. Playwright Lucy Pebble has written successfully for theatre: The Sugar Syndrome (2004), ENRON (2009), The Effect (2012); andtelevision: Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Since 2018 she went to ‘the dark side’ and became a co-executive producer of the television series Succession. She has a keen eye and a sharp sense of observation and story. With The Effect particularly, she knows how to engage the audience in the story and twists the guts while doing it. Bracing.

The Coal Mine Theatre presents:

Plays until July 30, 2023.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, approx. (1 intermission)

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