Director Lily Wolff’s production of Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs” at Hyde Park Theatre last year is one of the best pieces of theater I’ve seen in Austin, and playwright Lucy Prebble’s debut play, “The Sugar Syndrome,” is one of my favorite dramas of the 21st century thus far. It was with great anticipation, then, that I looked forward to Wolff’s new production of Prebble’s 2012 play, “The Effect,” produced by Capital T Theatre.
Fortunately, “The Effect” lived up to my high expectations. In many ways this is a more complex work than either “Lungs” or “The Sugar Syndrome,” as it is both an intense character study and a meditation on the nature of self in the age of mood-altering medications. However, both Wolff and Prebble are masters at turning complex ideas into theatrical beauty.
The show’s plot imagines a five-week study of a new antidepressant wherein participants are forced to live in a compound under 24-hour supervision and undergo a series of psychological examinations and tests as their dosage is gradually increased. Connie and Tristan are two such test subjects who quickly find themselves attracted to one another but worry about whether what they feel is real or merely a side effect of the drug. Overseeing this experiment is Dr. Lorna James, a concerned psychiatrist with her own history of depression, and the corporate-focused Dr. Toby Sealey, who is more worried about the drug trial than any of its participants.
What Wolff excels at, as a director, is getting deep, nuanced, intensely moving performances from her actors, and in helping them to express their character’s emotions with unique and engaging physicality. The scenes of passion between Sarah Danko, as Connie, and Delanté Keys, as Tristan, bristle with electricity, while Rebecca Robinson’s Lorna and Rommel Suit’s Toby imbue the play’s more cerebral meditations with an emotional resonance all their own. Danko, in particular, is breathtaking, maneuvering Connie from a shy, reserved college student through various stages of mania and depression in a raw and vulnerable journey that manages to hit extremes while still remaining wholly believable.
The design team (costume designer Cheryl Painter, sound/video designer Lowell Bartholomee, lighting designer Patrick Anthony, and scenic designer/Capital T artistic director Mark Pickell) similarly recognize that the intensity of this play is seated with the performances, and they work in clockwork unison to turn what begins as a simple, sterile, doctor’s office into a world of emotional and moody settings.
“The Effect” is a complex play dealing with important contemporary issues, but at its heart it is a moving story about the ways in which love can only coexist alongside the many lies we tell ourselves and others. Wolff and her top-notch cast, crew and creative team elevate that story to the next level, creating a show that is not to be missed.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 17
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.