No matter what other religions moderns hold dear or reject, there’s one element that we all share: The belief in dispassionate science. Whether it’s the latest Hubble images of some distant galaxy or new medical advances in the cure of cancer, we all know that our priestly scientists are steadily getting closer to the ultimate Truth, to be announced on news programs, in PBS specials, in best-selling books. Science is our go-to faith, the one not contradicted by detractors or rivals, the one that, unlike the other creeds with their unprovable claims, patently saves lives. From the obstetrician delivering a baby as you read this to the caregiver administering a geriatric patient’s Parkinsons' medication, science provides the context, the guidance, the explanations all along the life cycle. It’s the universal belief system, cherished in New York, Nairobi, Norway and Nepal. Its votaries are innumerable.
But what’s the cost of this faith? That’s the question — one of the questions — asked by Deborah Zoe Laufer’s wonderful play Informed Consent, currently playing at American Stage in a near-perfect production. Laufer’s drama — punctuated by comedy — is about Jillian, a white genetic anthropologist who’s asked to investigate a Native American tribe that's subject to disastrous occurrences of diabetes. As played by the splendid Juliana Davis, Jillian is driven, excitable, brightly overeager to advance in a field that she thinks may one day lead to the end of all disease. She’s also married to African-American Graham — portrayed charmingly by Jacobi Howard — who is a lot more comfortable than she in parenting their 4-year-old daughter, and who in several significant ways plays the brakes to Jillian’s gas pedal. Jillian embraces her new assignment zealously and helicopters into the Grand Canyon, the home of the tribe and, according to its traditions, the site of Creation. There she meets Arella — capably impersonated by Dana Segal — the 30-something spokesperson for the native group, and no great lover of those whites who, after all, stole most of her people’s land and livelihood. The relations of these two women will follow a trajectory far different from the one that Jillian imagines.
In dramatizing this trajectory, American Stage and director Benjamin T. Ismail give us a multimedia spectacle that mixes video and live action, direct addresses to the audience and conventional dramatic scenes, a contemporary set (by Jerid Fox) that looks in part like the equipment for a brain scan, and chanting that sometimes names the particles in DNA, sometimes the religious liturgy of the Native Americans. When Jillian tells us that her mother suffered from a genetic "glitch" that led inexorably to early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, we see a slide of that genetic material; and when little Natalie goes to one of her friends' interminable "princess parties," we see two of our actors — one a male — play the party moms, ordering their children to avoid all sorts of trouble. Some scenes last only seconds, others for tense minutes, and all contribute to our sense of Jillian's dangerous presumptions. Delighted by the great genetic similarities of all humans, she can exclaim, “We’re all cousins!” But her supervisor Ken — played searchingly by Richard B. Watson — has a more measured view. He's developed a kinship with the tribe over 40 careful years, and can credibly feel that they've become "family." Jillian wants her rootedness now, based on nothing but percentages. Close relations aren’t that facile to construct.
The movement of the play is high-speed but never confusing. Three of the four actors play more than one role: Segal is also Jillian and Graham’s young daughter; Watson plays a lawyer, a little girl, and a preschool Mom; and the talented Melanie Souza is Dean of Jillian’s university, Jillian’s mother, and another preschool parent. Director Ismail regularly finds not only the conflict but the surprising comedy in Laufer’s challenging script. Scott Daniel’s costumes are mostly casual, and generic enough that we hardly notice that they remain the same over days and weeks. And through it all, Davis' Jillian is worrying, endearing, dangerously naive, poignantly human. This is a performance to remember.
“We believe our blood is sacred,” Arella tells Jillian, but Jillian never, right to the end, understands what Arella means by that. She can’t: She lives in a world where sacredness is a memory and all that really matters can be found in the latest issue of Nature. For making this dichotomy so central — and so exciting to witness — Laufer deserves much praise and respect. She’s written a profoundly thoughtful play, peopled by fascinating characters. It deserves a wide audience.
American Stage, 163 Third St. N., St. Pete.
Through Apr. 9: Wed., 7 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; and Sat.-Sun., 3 p.m.