Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Informed Consent
Lantern Theater Company
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Cameron's review of Constellations


Lindsay Smiling, Kittson O'Neill,
and Samantha Bowling

Photo by Mark Garvin
A good portion of modern history can be interpreted as an ongoing struggle between science and faith. What respect do we owe ancient customs if they stand in the way of advancing knowledge? Is it better to remain ignorant of an empirical truth if its knowledge can negatively upend your life? This debate, and these questions, form the backbone of Deborah Zoe Laufer's thought-provoking Informed Consent, which is receiving its area premiere under the auspices of Lantern Theater Company.

The play centers around Jillian (Kittson O'Neill), an ambitious geneticist who is seemingly handed a golden ticket when an older colleague enlists her to study patterns of diabetes in an ancient American Indian tribe. A breakthrough finding would lead to plum publications, fat grants, and an endowed laboratory where she could focus on her real passion—finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease. For Jillian, her work in cracking genomic codes is personal: her mother died of early-onset Alzheimer's, and genetic testing has revealed a 100% chance that she will inherit the disease at a similarly young age. Jillian works tirelessly to improve the future for herself and her beloved daughter Natalie, who might also carry the predictive mutation.

Jillian's single-minded quest to unlock genetic secrets puts her at odds with nearly everyone in her life, including her husband (thoughtfully played by Lindsay Smiling), who makes it plainly clear that he doesn't want their daughter genetically tested. She also faces resistance from Arella (Samantha Bowling), who serves as a liaison between the tribe and Jillian's team of researchers. Arella makes it clear that the tribe is only interested in finding an answer to what is making them sick; they do not wish to be used as guinea pigs or research prizes. She pegs Jillian as someone who allows herself to be blinded by her own sense of what is right.

As the title suggests, the play focuses on the limits of ethical research involving human subjects—particularly those who may not be in the best position to understand what they are volunteering for (it is stated that few members of the tribe speak or read English). Laufer eschews easy answers in this debate; it is possible for the audience to identify with Jillian's firmly held beliefs that her potentially dubious actions are warranted, while understanding the sense of betrayal Arella feels when Jillian erodes her trust. Director Kathryn MacMillan's brisk production effectively highlights this dichotomy. Both Jillian and Arella cling to what they believe because it is how they make sense of the world; in a way, science is Jillian's faith, and myth is Arella's science.

Jillian is clearly the central role, and O'Neill gives a towering performance. She is at once zealous and playful, clear-eyed and governed by her own biases. Jillian lives with the terrifying knowledge that one day, perhaps sooner than later, her body and her mind will not be her own; O'Neill foregrounds this dread throughout her performance, leaving the audience wondering if the slips have already started, if a seemingly dropped word just spelled her doom. She's ideally paired with Bowling, who gives a commanding and challenging performance as an educated woman who refuses to abandon her tribe and its traditions. A host of smaller roles—including the older colleague, the dean of Jillian's university, and Jillian's long-dead mother, in flashback—are well-played by Justin Jain and Marian Konstantinidis.

Informed Consent begins and ends with Jillian attempting to write a letter to her daughter. It is immediately clear that soft words are not her milieu. She speaks of a "monster living inside her," who may be living inside the little girl too. Even though the letter may not be comforting, we immediately understand that everything Jillian has done—the good and the bad—has been in service of what she thought was right. Laufer's taut play invites us to investigate our own sense of what is ethical, and how far it is acceptable to go to find an "objective" truth.

Informed Consent continues at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow, Philadelphia, through Sunday, February 12, 2017. Tickets ($10-42) can be purchased online at www.lanterntheater.org, by phone (215-829-0395), or at the box office during business hours.


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