Deborah Zoe Laufer's new play "Informed Consent," currently being presented by Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street, tackles a whole host of subjects, including science, myth, identity, genetics, family, memory, disease, and more. In lesser hands, such a play could be an unfocused mess, but Laufer expertly weaves these themes into a wonderful and thought-provoking drama.
The inspiration for "Informed Consent" is a real-life court case involving Arizona State University and the Havasupai, a tribe of Native Americans who have long lived in the Grand Canyon and have been suffering from a terrible diabetes epidemic. In the play, a genetic anthropologist named Jillian (Tina Benko) has been tasked with testing the tribe members in hopes of identifying a genetic link to the problem.
This is no easy feat, though, since the tribe believes blood is sacred and is reluctant to supply samples. This means Jillian must convince Arella (Delanna Studi), one of the more receptive -- if still skeptical -- members of the tribe, and then she must in turn convince everyone else.
This already delicate situation is complicated further by the fact that Jillian is of such a doggedly scientific mindset that she has difficulty respecting the boundaries and beliefs of the tribe. Their own creation story says that they sprang from the floor of the Canyon, while Jillian's genomic research says they migrated from another continent. Her failure to appreciate how much the tribe's beliefs mean to them ends up having severe repercussions and jeopardizes her entire career.
One of the interesting things that Laufer does in writing the Jillian character is that she makes it very clear where her love of science -- and outright delight in the rapid development of genetic research -- comes from. Jillian lost her mother at a young age from early-onset Alzheimer's, and she knows the disease is coming for her as well. She and her husband have a young daughter, and Jillian has hopes that the diabetic study will eventually help her get funds to do Alzheimer's research and perhaps find a cure before her daughter might have to contend with the illness.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, "Informed Consent" is almost lighthearted in its approach. Under Liesl Tommy's nimble direction, the 95-minute play moves at a brisk pace and has humor to spare. The excellent five-member cast, which also includes Pun Bandhu, Jesse J. Perez, and Myra Lucretia Taylor, hops in and out of character with ease, filling the stage with tribe members, researchers, university staff, parents and children.
Laufer has developed several interesting, multi-dimensional characters, from always-says-what-she's-thinking Jillian and her live-for-the-moment husband Graham to her social anthropologist colleague Ken and tribe member Arella, who passionately defends her people. They are all coming from different places on the many issues at hand, but still find much common ground (a scene between Jillian and Arella, who bond over their shared concern that their children will inherit their genetic woes, is particularly touching).
These people are wrestling with some incredibly difficult questions: Should a parent who harbors a genetic time bomb test their child to see if they have it too? Should they have even had the child to begin with? And is it worth destroying a group's spiritual identity to improve their physical well-being?
There aren't any clear answers in "Informed Consent," but it is a great modern play that addresses of-the-moment concerns, including the fact that scientific progress both frees us and places burdens on us that our ancestors never could have imagined.
"Informed Consent" runs through September 13 at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, NYC. For information or tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit www.primarystages.org.