With characters and their talking points mirroring each other, the pervasive symmetry of The Effect is an obvious contrivance, yet it’s still so damn arresting. Lucy Prebble’s cunning play is full of ontological cliches; the stylish patterns in Mitchell Cushman’s staging for Coal Mine Theatre are a little too deliberate. A chaotic, restless humanity, however, lurks underneath the facade. This awful, aching force eventually disrupts the whole rigid scheme.
During a clinical trial for an anti-depressant drug, we meet two young test subjects, Connie (Leah Doz) and Tristan (Aris Athanasopoulos); and their middle-aged counterparts: facilitator, Dr Lorna (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) and the test’s creator, Dr Toby (Jordan Pettle). As the story unfolds with clockwork precision, their discussions spin relentlessly around opposing ideas of how we, as humans, understand ourselves—and, ultimately, what we are.
Connie is, initially, the hesitant and careful one—determined to adhere to the strict guidelines of the trial. Even before she gives in to Tristan’s persistent, goofy flirtations, Doz offers us intriguing glimpses into her guarded psyche, revealing pent-up instincts ready to erupt.
Right off, Athanasopoulos’ Tristan is an endearing bundle of impulsive, kinetic enthusiasm. It’s hard, at first, for Connie or the audience to take him very seriously. He undermines the integrity of the trail with reckless shenanigans, eventually winning Connie’s trust and affection.
As their feelings for each other intensify, their charged discussions dance around the story’s key fixation on the mind-body problem. The suggestion of a potential placebo complicates their tenuous grasp on the situation and they spiral into semantic and ideological feedback loops running in tandem. Are their feelings real or manufactured? Is it love or chemicals? Is it dopamine or god?
In her authoritative interactions with them, Armour-Ostroff is restrained and watchful. Her subtle tone and body language hints at awareness and empathy without overstating either. In contrast to her portrait of quiet, dutiful sincerity, Pettle’s Dr Toby is a charismatic showman. Their increasingly heated discussions probe professional ethics and personal stakes.
Cushman and his design team expand the intellectual and emotional symmetry of the story out into the aesthetics. The audience sits on opposing sides of Nick Blais’ narrow set which depicts a funhouse version of institutional efficiency and functionality. The slatted modular chairs are playfully reconfigured into examination tables. Pastel pink dominates, skewing Connie and Tristan’s reality towards a candy-floss, pop-tech delirium. James Smith’s pulsing score reinforces the urgent, mechanical routine. We fall into their rhythms and the gestalt of it is exhilarating—until it isn’t.
Personal histories are laid bare and interrogated. Body chemistries are flooded with foreign compounds. The situation escalates, comes to a screeching crescendo and then catastrophe. After such a heady, exhilarating ride, the aftermath is a sober meditation on both our frailty and resilience.
running July 9 to July 30, 2023
Coal Mine Theatre (2076 Danforth Ave)
run time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (+ intermission)