INFORMED CONSENT (Lantern): A strange kind of ethics

Lindsay Smiling, Kittson O’Neill, and Samantha Bowling, Photo credit: Mark Garvin.

Lindsay Smiling, Kittson O’Neill, and Samantha Bowling, Photo credit: Mark Garvin.

Before INFORMED CONSENT begins, there’s little to think about but Lance Kniskern’s set, a raised spiral platform without decoration. It’s peculiar and promising. It encourages the hope that the set looks the way it does for some interesting reason. We are left waiting for that reason.

The play, by Deborah Zoe Laufer, conjures itself to life in a familiar sort of way. Broken dialog from anonymous actors slowly coalesces into a discernable pattern. We come to understand we’re listening to the retelling of a life story—of Jillian (Kittson O’Neill), a genetic anthropologist, who has inherited the gene for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease from her mother and perhaps passed it on to her young daughter.

Much of what we learn of Jillian comes from exposition; we never feel the warmth behind the character. It doesn’t help that her actions reinforce this coolness at every opportunity. She is stridently dismissive of the experiences of everyone around her and her choices repeatedly result in pain for those around her. After she misleads a Native population as part of a medical research project, the betrayal they feel elicits the same reaction out of her as a threat to her upcoming publication in Nature.

The exposition is delivered using a combination of Jillian’s monologs and the narration of a chorus. This interrupted rhythm continues throughout. Interruptions abound, occasionally offering some information, but usually presenting a quick joke. They tend to be detached from the through-line of scenes, bringing distraction rather than their intended levity.

The play’s drama comes from arguments between characters. Mostly, Jillian argues for testing her daughter for the Alzheimer’s gene and for the blood sampling of a Native American tribe. In fact, the play consists almost entirely of scenes in which Jillian argues with someone else about one of these concerns.

These are familiar ethical quandaries; it is neither intellectually nor emotionally fulfilling to watch their relitigation. Despite some of the genuinely good acting, particularly by Lindsay Smiling (as Jillian’s husband Graham) and Samantha Bowling (as Havasupai representative Arella), the characters tread water until the arguments finally reach a resolution, when—for somewhat murky reasons—Jillian comes to realization about her actions.

The play has a compelling point to make about the diversity of truth and mutual respect, but in the end, it’s difficult to take the argument seriously. The Native population, whose concerns are ignored to further the career of the protagonist, are once again ignored by the play itself in its closing scenes, in favor of our white protagonist’s deteriorating mental state. They are brushed aside at the conclusion after serving their purpose and enriching our lives with a valuable lesson.

[St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow Street] January 18-February 12, 2017; lanterntheater.org

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