Bonus Material

The Necessity of Imagination and Validity of Love in 'The Effect'


March 17, 2024

Lexie Waddy

Lexie Waddy (she/her) is an actor and recent graduate from Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts. Her Rutgers Theatre Company credits include Sandra in Angela Davis’s School for Girls With Big EYES, Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, and Olga in Three Sisters. Other credits include Emily Webb in Our Town and Lauretta in The World’s Ending and Maybe That’s Kinda Hot. A highlight of her education was the opportunity to study at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, UK, where she learned Globe performance practices, Elizabethan culture, and Shakespearean text structure and analysis. She aims to create and contribute to work that challenges and disrupts expectations of what theatre and film “should” look like, and help facilitate a kinder, healthier, more inclusive artistic space and sociopolitical culture.

Award-winning writer Lucy Prebble’s play The Effect tells the story of Connie (Taylor Russell) and Tristan (Paapa Essiedu), two people participating in a pharmaceutical trial for anti-depressants who fall in love (but do they though?). It’s also the story of the doctors (played by Michele Austin and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) who attempt to maintain the integrity of the trial. As the trial progresses, Connie and Tristan tease, question, challenge, and discover each other, inevitably falling in love. Since the trial is for a drug which influences dopamine, they question if their love is true or merely a side effect and if that matters at all in the end. In their desperation to determine the truth and validity of their love, they put the trial in jeopardy leaving Dr. Lorna James (Austin) and Dr. Toby Sealey (Holdbrook-Smith) scrambling to maintain the experiment's integrity. As she manages this antidepressant trial, Dr. James faces her own history with depression.

Riveting, at only an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, the show keeps audiences just as trapped in the “experiment.” We are only able to step away from the story once the characters themselves are thrust back into the “real world,” uncertain, but decidedly changed.

Aside from a couple of chairs, there is next to nothing on stage. Ironically, the character Dr. James (played by the aforementioned Austin) says, “Well, everything’s physical ultimately, isn’t it?” There are not even any props in director Jamie Lloyd’s staging, save for a bucket (and its contents, which I will not disclose). Playing in a sparse world like this is a testament to the skill of Lloyd’s company of actors and their ability to lead the audience through a world where the things that are spoken of are not actually present. The lack of props augmented the storytelling, drawing focus to the actors instead of the things around them and trusting the audience’s imagination to fill in the rest. Imagination becomes an active participant and collaborator in the story and encourages us to be that much more invested, as opposed to letting us be passive observers, as has become the theater standard.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, left, and Michele Austin (with Papa Essiedu and Taylor Russell seated onstage) in The Effect.

While there were few physical items on stage, lighting (by Jon Clark) and sound (by George Dennis) were present in abundance. The lighting directly affected the physical space, as brightened tiles on the floor signified exam rooms, hallways, MRI machines. Even more brilliant was the staging of two mirrored moments: Connie and Tristan stand across from each other and in one moment, everything goes black and there are white strobe lights and we hear an incessant and pervading heartbeat so loud you can feel the seats vibrating. In the other, they stand similarly, but the light is warm and glowy, and there’s a single soft beam across the room highlighting their faces. The first felt like the rush and adrenaline of falling in love, and the second felt like the peace of a gentle and settled love. I’ve seen a lot of rom-coms and a lot of love stories, but I have never seen the feeling of falling in love so clearly depicted, or an environment so specifically created to allow the audience to feel exactly what the characters were feeling.

At the center of this play are these twin questions: what is love and how is it defined, and how does mental health affect our relationships with others and ourselves? The show pairs Connie and Tristan, each with seemingly opposite viewpoints — idealist with pragmatic, dreamer with skeptic — in a unique and intense situation. They question the legitimacy and longevity of the love they develop: Do they know each other well enough? Do they want similar things? Do they share beliefs? Is everything they’re feeling a side effect of the trial? Do those answers even matter?

The flip side of their questions deal with mental health, specifically depression, and medication. Keivana, a longtime friend and collaborator who saw The Effect with me, noted that something that we don’t often talk about is the mental health of therapists and caregivers — as Dr. James says, in response to being asked if she was a psychiatrist, “Yeah, and I’m a person.” It brings to the forefront the reminder that at some point, every person needs care or support even if that need isn’t entirely expressed. When introduced to Dr. James, her humor, flirtation, and playfulness keep us from expecting to learn about her reality: struggling to get out of bed in the morning, functioning by focusing on one thing at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, constantly at odds with intrusive thoughts. Austin navigates the truth and gravity of this character with grace and respect, honoring the duality of experience and reminding us that we never truly know what someone else may be going through. The Effect makes no attempts at a “correct answer” of how to treat depression (if medical treatment is wanted at all) or even how it is experienced. What it does do, however, is hold space for such experiences and discussions about treatment, which is a valuable contribution to the de-stigmatization of conversations surrounding mental health and medication.

Michele Austin and Paapa Essiedu in The Effect.

Performing the entirety of a 100-minute piece with no intermission and never leaving the stage is no small feat. Michele Austin, Paapa Essiedu, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, and Taylor Russell are endearing and electric, and it feels like a real privilege to witness their work. Their playfulness and flirtation with the fourth wall are captivating; their candor and warmth are invitations into their world. The Effect was so lived in and deeply personal, which made it all the more heartbreaking and even something close to hopeful. Not to mention equally hilarious and easily the most quotable play I’ve ever seen (honorable mentions including but not limited to “Can you please just not attack Beyoncé?” and, during a dance sequence, “Gymnastics! Gymnastics!” punctuating Esseidu’s cartwheels across the stage). A study in humanity and love, this play leads audiences through a whirlwind of scientific soliloquies and montages of both romance and tragedy, encouraging us to more deeply consider our own perspectives and reminding us to check in on and love well the people we hold dear.

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