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Jonas (Tim Moyer) and his wife Lizzie (Nancy Boykin), both carriers of a bad gene, have a first child with defective genetics, and their relationship has suffered greatly. The odds were stacked against them with just a 25% chance that another child could be completely normal. Should Jonas, a geneticist with a long history of successful monkey experiments behind him, and with his wife's consent, have intervened and effected changes in the genetic makeup of their unborn second child, in order to produce a defect-free baby?
InterAct specializes in the kind of theater where issues take the front seat, driving the theatrical experience. In addition to performances, InterAct holds discussions related to the sociological implications of its productions. In this case there will be programs with a range of perspectives on genetic engineering and bioethics presented by biologists and sociologists from the University of Pennsylvania.
You have to admire how seriously the company takes its mission and how it flows through their work. When social issue controversy takes center stage, however, it doesn't always make particularly gripping and engaging theater. InterAct handles the job better than most.
Seth Rozin -- writer, artistic director, and social critic -- entertains a series of "what ifs" about serious ethical issues, initially spinning the questions like a good persuasive speaker, anticipating audience concerns. A problem is that Rozin has things to say in different directions, and the play, reflecting his ambiguity, becomes muddied. Further, the game is rigged enough to take force out of the arguments.
Rozin has set up the variables so that the most compelling choice is to go ahead despite the law. There is much at stake for the baby and not much hope without this action, and the couple knows well what the bad gene can do. There is nothing frivolous about their choice. The father has conducted thousands of successful experiments on animals, a principal domain where experiments are carried out. So there's hope and it's not a huge gamble. On the other hand, the rhetoric is set against it. After skewing to the choice the couple makes, the play pulls an about-face and criticizes the stance it takes.
The challenge of embodying Rozin's ambivalence falls to Ahren Potratz in the role as the normal son, Jason. This can not be an easy role to play and it shows. His initial reaction of gratitude at receiving the news of his parents' intervention in his genetics, while it could be viewed as selfish or superficial, also seems logical and normal. His next reaction, getting pissed off and running off somewhere to whack flower pots with a stick, is behavior bordering on the schizophrenic. Likely meant to show moral outrage, it reads as inexplicable perversity.
Lizzie feels essentially abandoned by her husband who lets her carry the burden of their special child alone while he lavishes attention on Jason. Boylen does a good job of negotiating the maternal instincts and the guilt at wanting a normal child, while Tim Moyer's Jonas role is written as more acted on than acting. Matt Pfeiffer's portrayal of Paul Tuttle brings out the difficulty and the beauty of the special child. The part is well written, and Pfeiffer's fine acting absolutely steals the show.
Kevin Bergen plays the FDA investigator who serves as a spokesperson covering an array of concerns, some beyond the purview of that government agency. The audience, implicitly invited to consider implications for future generations and potential for abuse, may think of guys like Dr. Mengele and those sci-fi movie baddies who genetically engineer superior races. We are also reminded that science is always ahead of the law. Seth Reichgott as Leeds, a bio tech guy, and Jonas's boss, is conflicted, both deploring and admiring him. It's hard to figure out Robert "Uncle Bob" Leeds.
Things get drawn out as the play crams ten pounds of ethics into a five pound bag. There is also the emotional territory, which becomes more prominent as the play moves along, and the familial relationships are finally capped in a tender ending.
Boris Tatlovich (John Morrison), a big, solid ice fisherman, inhabits the space upstage, separate from the play's action. He is Jonas Tuttle's grandfather. He wishes he could control the weather, but has no other scientific aspirations. He may represent the past where they did things a certain way, back through generations. Doomed by unchanging methods, he ends up on a melting ice floe as it is disappears into the sea. The ice fisherman carries the bad gene. So it is understandable in a sense that he would be a presence in the play. (However, Lizzie also is a carrier and her heritage is not represented.) The fisherman, who is always there even during intermission, is a commanding yet superfluous presence-there is no need for an ancestor to be shown; however, his language is particularly well written and spoken and he adds to the play as he exists on a plane of poetry and scenic design.
In Daniel Boylen's set design the cold covers and permeates everything. The ice floe seems to flow into the family home from the back region of the stage, covering everything with dark, flecked cold -- the table, the chairs, and the family relationships. Several metal poles provide verticals that break up the main performing area's horizontality. Small locations to the right and left serve as staging areas for assaults. Director Harriet Power uses space resiliently, and her direction paired with good lighting design provides a number of beautifully staged moments and clever changes of focus as actors, lights, and space interact.
It could be that Rozin is answering some of the questions he has raised in ways he might not have anticipated initially. The playwright's vision would logically be expected to provide a guiding force through the material. However, his voice here is not clear, unless the substance of his position is just to air anew the old idea about mankind leaving the blissful ignorance of Eden and going, through science, where it was never meant to go.
The range and function of theater extends beyond romance, music, and laughs. Thought-provoking material can be found on the stage, even if it may feel like the play is taking the place of a lecture at the ethical society. The theater needs its Seth Rozins and thank goodness for them.
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