Lantern Theater’s “Informed Consent” Raises Deep Issues, But Lacks Subtlety

The Lantern Theater Company’s Informed Consent is a play that is not afraid to tackle big ethical and scientific questions: Are our identities defined by biology or culture? If genetic testing can provide us with insight into our biology and diseases, then is it our responsibility to acquire this insight? Is not knowing an evasion of our ethical responsibility? Is knowledge always power?

The playwright herself, Deborah Zoe Laufer, asks, “Does your blood tell your story? Does your history tell your story? Do you decide what your story is?”

In “Informed Consent,” gifted Philadelphia actress Kittson O’Neill plays an ambitious geneticist, Jillian, who races to solve scientific mysteries that could save both an ancient people and her own family. She begins pioneering research on a Native American tribe in the Grand Canyon whose members are ravaged by diabetes, but her research threatens the tribe’s self-understanding. A parallel story finds Jillian struggling with her own biology: She has inherited the gene for Alzheimer’s from her mother, who died at 36 from early onset of this disease. She and her husband, Graham (played beautifully by Lindsay Smiling), disagree about testing their 4-year-old daughter (Samantha Bowling) for the gene.

The play’s origin lies in a New York Times article about a court case involving a Native American tribe suing a university over informed consent. Director Kathryn MacMillan said she was drawn to how the play “weaves together challenging ideas. … How do we balance competing values in a culture that can move too fast for reflection?”

Laufer chooses to tell the story in a decidedly self-conscious manner, using an ensemble cast as chorus, who comment on how Jillian, the genetic scientist, ought to tell her own story. While this works as an idea — the idea that we construct meaning out of the stories we tell and how we tell them — this was not an effective way to tell this story. The staging by scenic designer Lance Kniskern did not help matters. The winding staircase served as a cool sparse setting, but it did not add anything to the production.

Jillian’s Western, scientific hubris smacks in the face of the native Indian tribe’s creation narratives, and her violation of the informed consent agreement leads, too predictably and neatly, to her own poignant insights about identity, history and memory. Despite its didactic, sentimental tendencies, “Informed Consent” raises critical issues about the relationship between science, narrative and ethics.

In one of the most effective scenes, we hear three simultaneous bedtime stories — one from Jillian, rooted in science and DNA; one from her husband, a children’s book writer, about dragons and princesses; and one from their daughter, Arella, about her Native American creation myth. I wish there had been more of this kind of lyrical writing.

Laufer attempts to tell an important story in “Informed Consent” about a tribe and a scientist with competing worldviews and competing values. Unfortunately, the writing and execution are often too neat and stiff in this telling, not leaving enough room for ambiguity and messiness to feel satisfying dramatically.

Artistic Director Charles McMahon explains, “If the heart of human experience is not reason but narrative, then the problem of social paralysis in the face of urgent need is not a failure of reason, but a failure of narrative.” More often than not, the narrative in “Informed Consent” fails to render the mysterious heart of human experience in a complex, subtle way.

This is “Informed Consent’s” final week at the Lantern Theater Company. The show closes on Sunday, February 12. Visit the Lantern Theater Company website for showtimes and ticket prices.

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