Dr. Jillian Elliott (an unfussy, intense Benko) is a genetic anthropologist at a large university in Arizona, specializing in gene flow based on migratory patterns. Her interest was spurred when her mother died at age 36 when Jillian was only seven. Now that the human genome has been mapped, she has had herself tested and knows that she has a 100% chance of getting early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her husband Graham (a sensitive and understated Pun Bandhu), a writer of children’s picture books, doesn’t want her to test their four year old daughter Natalie (DeLanna Studi) as he would rather not know if Natalie has a 25% chance of getting the disease. Jillian believes that knowledge is power.
The drama of the play begins when Jillian is asked by her colleague Ken, a social anthropologist, to take on a diabetes study for a Native American tribe that lives at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and has the third highest rate of Type II diabetes in the world. With only 670 tribe members left and half of them with diabetes, it is imperative to find out why.
Jillian is thrilled with the assignment which will allow her to analyze a restricted gene pool with unpolluted DNA, hoping that if she is successful with this study it will lead to funding for her to focus on Alzheimer’s research full time. However, there are problems. The tribe does not want to participate in the study as they believe that their blood is sacred and must be buried with them. As English is not the first language of the tribe, Jillian will have to use a Native American translator, Arella Namida (Studi), a college educated woman who has seen much of the world. The tribe also believes that they have sprung from the Grand Canyon and their creation myths are based on this belief.
Jillian convinces Arella and subsequently the tribe that for the good of their children and their children’s children they should submit to the trial. Due to the need for “informed consent,” Gillian creates a form in English with the vague language that the members of the tribe are told that they are giving consent to “study the causes of behavioral/medical disorders.” She interprets this to mean that she can also study migratory patterns to discover where they originally came from and inbreeding to see how isolated the population has been. Unfortunately, when the tribe discovers this additional research, they are furious as this is not what they have given permission for. And for Gillian living with the threat of early-onset Alzheimer’s, time is running out.
The play is structured as a series of flashbacks in Gillian’s mind with the additional four actors playing voices in her head who reenact these memories and who interact with her as her own thoughts. Wilson Chin’s clever setting includes an entire wall of file boxes stretching as high as the eye can see and four spiral staircases that suggest the DNA genome by which the characters often enter and exit. The lighting by Matthew Richards and the projection design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew allow for the unit set to be seen as many locales in Arizona.
The play covers all sides of the issues and requires three of the five actors to play several roles. Studi, herself a member of the Cherokee tribe, brings to her role of Arella a quiet dignity and authority; she is both amusing and convincing as the four year old Natalie. The mercurial veteran actress Myra Lucretia Taylor makes several shifts as the Dean of the University, Gillian’s mother and grandmother, and Sheila, a mother of one of Natalie’s preschool classmates. Also playing four roles, Jesse J. Perez is most often seen as the wise and knowledgeable Ken, the social anthropologist who has devoted 40 years of his life to his study of the tribe.
Benko who has often played such bravura roles in recent years as Jacqueline Kennedy, Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Birdie in The Little Foxes, and Marianne in Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, is completely upfront and direct as Jillian. We see her as a woman who is obsessed, passionate, over-educated, driven, and monomaniacal and always says what is on her mind. She is a Type A personality who always knows exactly what needs to be done and how to go about it. She dominates the play as she is intended to and makes an indelible impression as the scientist who can look to the end result of her work. Informed Consent mixes its three plot strands in an absorbing story based on a landmark case that occurred from 1989 – 2010 and lays bare the dangers of science, religion and the law.
Informed Consent (through September 13, 2015)
Primary Stages, Ensemble Studio Theatre and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit http://www.Dukeon42.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission