“Have you ever suffered from depression?” Dr. Lorna James (Justine C. Turner) asks her subject (twenty-six-year-old female, five-foot-one, 103 pounds, date of last period unknown, no drugs, monogamous heterosexual relationship, occupation: student—or, Daniella Pereira as Connie Hall). Depression: to be a suffered. A disease, named and defined. An unlucky roll of the dice or a weakness of character. A chemical abnormality or anomaly to be addressed chemically. A disorder without a cause, barring the subject from an appropriate future effect. A weakness of the soul or an affirmation that the mind is mere meat, a mass of gelatinous substance charged with a series of automated events, choice or character being its best illusion. Subject denies depression.
Subject joins a clinical trial for agent RLU37 with her eyes open, she thinks. Connie is a psychology student. She understands the tests. She understands the effects of a dopaminergic agent on the brain: a sense of elation corresponding to the thrill of a novel experience or the heart-leap of falling in love. “In most cases, being aware of your bias doesn’t mean you can actually affect that bias,” says Dr. James. Dr. James tends to give out a little too much information to be neutral—that’s her bias.
Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect” is a thrilling challenge to the questions of body, brain and soul at a time when pharmaceuticals are the first-line approach to discomfort in any of the above. Like any good soap, the sample subjects of the A-plot of this story are young and sexy, with a B-plot of older doctors suffering the effects of their former sexiness. And yet the result is so smart the evening provokes as much as it entertains, all woven around the essential human question: what is love?
In Strawdog’s production, directed by Elly Green, the chemistry is palpable, with the reckless abandon of fellow subject Tristan (Sam Hubbard), the perfect foil for Connie’s cerebral caution, with doctors James and Toby Sealy (Cary Shoda) reflecting more seasoned perspectives on the problems this piece presents. Yeaji Kim’s excellent set design and projections make the most of the black box space. (Irene Hsiao)
Strawdog Theatre Company, 1802 West Berenice, (773)644-1380, strawdog.org, $26-$55. Through November 23.