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The Effect, or the Need for Love

There comes a moment in every relationship when we ponder whether to stay or go. It usually comes at the highest point in a lovers’ quarrel, when the words Stay and Go blend into one another. While there's a question as to which of them wins out (the word, not the lovers), there is rarely any question as to the root cause of this paradox: Love.

actors performing on stage
(L-R) Susannah Flood, George Demas, Kati Brazda, and Carter Hudson in a scene from Lucy Prebble's The Effect directed by David Cromer at the Barrow Street Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

For Dr. Lorna James and Dr. Toby Sealy, in Lucy Prebble's play, The Effect, which completed its run at the Barrow Street Theatre September 4, the question occurred long before the play begins. For their test subjects Connie and Tristan, who are participating in the clinical trial of a new antidepressant, it comes before the act break.

“Among the many themes Prebble explores in this play,” director David Cromer said, “is how love exists between people through a long lifetime. The relationships depicted in The Effect are meant to be accelerated and condensed lifetimes, so within that framework there are as many of the reasons that people love and care for each other as we could think of.”

What is love, exactly? And why is it more necessary now than ever? Is love that feeling we get when our partner brushes against our arm, the goose-bumps? Is it the knowledge that, no matter where life takes us, there is someone at home, eagerly awaiting our return? Or is it simply a chemical reaction that occurs in the brain when we experience certain stimuli? In The Effect, Dr. James, a brooding psychiatrist who leads a clinical trial of a new anti-depressant, wrestles with this question.

While Dr. James, played with a perfect balance of professionalism and frailty by Kati Brazda, observes and records the effects of the experimental drug, her experiment falls apart. Her employer, and former lover, Dr. Sealy, played by Steve Key, supervises the experiment, creating all kinds of ethical and moral quandaries as the experiment produces results that neither doctor could foresee. Yet Dr. James and Dr. Sealy impose their respective perspectives on each episode created by the test subjects, Connie, a quiet, thoughtful young woman studying psychology, and Tristan, a rangy young drifter who's trying to make some extra cash in order to travel to the Taj Mahal.

If love and happiness could be delivered via a drug, who would have control over the supply? Who would have access to the drug? What would the side effects be? Would the love be ‘real’?

These two pairs embody the timeless struggle between lovers. But here's the rub: Connie and Tristan fall in love during the course of the experiment. And the subjects—as well as the audience—are left wondering: Is this love real? Or is it chemically induced? Does it matter? Of course this gives birth to an even more troubling set of questions: If love and happiness could be delivered via a drug, who would have control over the supply? Who would have access to the drug? What would the side effects be? Would the love be “real?”

“I absolutely heed Dr. James’ speculation that depression may be ‘a symptom, not a disease...a useful pain telling you to change your life’,” Cromer said, while opening up about his own experience with antidepressants. “I try to use my meds as a way to facilitate emotional clarity so I can address my other concerns.”

(L-R) Carter Hudson and Susannah Flood in a scene from Lucy Prebble's The Effect directed by David Cromer at the Barrow Street Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Tristan, played by Carter Hudson, has all the energy, enthusiasm, and charisma of one who's always “on.” He uses every movement, every word, and each moment of time to great effect as he attempts to woo Connie. Connie (Susannah Flood), is much more reserved, contemplative, and thoughtful. And yet beneath her seemingly calm demeanor, we can feel the yearning of one who's stuck in life. She wants to make a clean break to leave behind an older man, who has a child from “before,” and, as the play unfolds in scenes organized by increases in dosage, we are skillfully led through a ritualistic dance that reveals the stages of love. But, as their relationship grows more intimate and intense, Connie begins to doubt her own feelings:

I just think it comes and goes. There's a period of time, maybe enough to raise children and then…You know, the few times I've ever loved anyone they've always, at some point they've written I Love You in the snow or the sand—on holiday—to me. And it's wonderful. But the next time someone…it happens, or the next even…you think, Oh okay. Again. And you think of the last time. And what that meant. And, just for it to get washed away or melt or…

That passage beautifully captures the ephemeral nature of love, and, by extension, theatre. A lover writes “I Love You” in the sand, only to have it wash away with the incoming tide. A group of theatre artists turn on the lights and say to the audience, “We love you,” only to disappear when the lights go black. Whether or not we want it to, love dies. Likewise, the show comes to its conclusion.

What's left? When a lover leaves, for better or worse, we will be forever changed. Joy gives way to pain. When the pain finally subsides, we are reborn. Still, in acts that may be viewed as courageous or foolish, we invite love into our lives again and again. Hoping for The One. Each ending opens out towards another beginning. And beginnings are bliss.

Tristan: I feel. Full. I feel almost…holy. Like life is paying attention to me. I don't want to tell you anything about what I feel about you and what's just hit me about how I feel about you…because it's not fair when you're…I want to be good for you.

Then, as we leave behind the exciting terrain of the beginning, we get nearer to the ledge that separates the independent singleton from the shared life of someone who's devoted to loving and caring for another. We begin to worry about compatibility, resources, ideological systems that advocate for staying single, and committing to a partner. We face doubts. We begin to test the other, and, even those of us who are drug free, we try to deduce whether our love is “real.” We begin asking if we're compatible. And, why shouldn't we? We are about to make a big leap into the unknown. And, in doing so, we make ourselves utterly vulnerable towards our partner.

For Connie and Tristan, it's much more difficult to parse out whether it's really love, or if it's the drug. Connie rebels because she wonders whether or not she can trust herself under the influence of the drug. Her doubt throws Tristan down the rabbit-hole of despair, the special kind felt by those who love someone who cannot return that love. What follows is the obligatory battle royal experienced by all lovers who reach the breaking point in their ability to accept one another, flaws and all.

Connie provokes Tristan. Tristan gets violent with her when they tussle during an argument. Though Connie could have left Tristan (and some would argue she should have), she chooses to forgive his transgression.

Prebble accomplishes something magnificent and necessary with The Effect. She reminds us that, no matter how mysterious and fraught with pain relationships may be, they are among the great joys in life. They make life worth living.

Prebble accomplishes something magnificent and necessary with The Effect. She reminds us that, no matter how mysterious and fraught with pain relationships may be, they are among the great joys in life. They make life worth living.

“We all spend an enormous amount of our lives looking for love,” Cromer added. “This search consumes us constantly in ways we can barely admit. When we cannot find it or we have it and we lose it we get very sad. This play is a conversation (not complete, not definitive, of course) about what love and sadness might be made of.”

Today's world is especially in need of the love between two persons, and for those loving persons to extend that love out into their communities. As life goes virtual, and communities dissolve in a toxic cocktail of individuality, consumerism, and an increasing refusal to accept others who have different ways of thinking, living, and being in the world, perhaps the only sacred thing left is love.

In a world that has spawned Enron (Which Prebble tackled in her play by the same name), Sandy Hook, Orlando, and countless other atrocities, we need more desperately than ever to reach out to those around us in order to see what is reflected. Even if we happen to have opposing viewpoints, as Connie and Tristan do, as Dr. James and Dr. Sealy do, we still must strive to accept that the other is a human being, capable of good and deserving of love.

The doctors in the play try to parse out whether love is indeed chemical, or if it comes from something deeper, more mysterious, and therefore impossible to manipulate, but it's impossible to tell. They offer no easy answers, nor does Prebble. And yet she still manages to create a sense of intermingling terror and awe. Some couples, as I looked around the darkened theatre, were leaning into one another as the show progressed.

Some may see Connie's final action—she takes Tristan home to care for him, even though, due to a seizure caused by the clinical trial, he can’t remember who she is—as a head-scratcher. But her sacrifice in that moment is profoundly touching. It acts as a call for us all to practice humility and forgiveness more consistently, to seek fulfillment in providing love and care to one another. For, in the end, it doesn't matter so much what you've done with your life, how much money you’ve made, what viewpoints you held or how many arguments you've won, so much as who loves you.

a man carries a woman
(L-R) Carter Hudson and Susannah Flood in a scene from Lucy Prebble's The Effect directed by David Cromer at the Barrow Street Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Before the lights fade on the play, Dr. James reveals the way the experiment has changed her way of thinking. Whereas before she refused to take antidepressants, her final action in the play is to take an antidepressant. This new way of thinking engenders a new approach to life for her. It acts as a humble reminder that, in order to be trusted we must first trust others. Though we have experienced many disappointments and horrors up to this point, and we may, accordingly, feel like balling up into a defensive posture, something better lies beyond today. If only we choose to open ourselves up to the possibilities.

“Would I take the drug in the play if it was actually ‘Viagra for the heart’,” Cromer mused. “If I loved someone and they loved me but the love had been compromised somehow and was dying. I'd sure consider it. I'd sure be tempted. But maybe the fading of love is a symptom and not a disease.”

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"I love the idea of love" is something I explain to people when discussing this very complex term/action. I think that the idea of love for someone, something, somewhere is so beautiful in that we are able to build bonds with anything that give us a deeper connection to living. I myself have been put on antidepressants, and it's a memory I've slowly grown apart from. A place I did not love in my life was the moment I became medicated. The idea of a medication that can induce happiness or love is ultimately terrifying to me. I feel then that the naturalness of that bond we build is taken away. I can not answer what love is as a definite concept, but I know love. The characters that go through this trial are in different places mentally which connects to an audience because their are times when you have talked to someone that you wanted to explore your opportunities with that has told you that they "are not ready". A respectful place, yes, but then you ask: When will you be ready? Are we actually prepared to love? And that vulnerability that is mentioned is something that shakes the core because we know that love can shake our core. Love can do damage. We can fall out of love or someone can fall out of love with us. A quote by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that fits this show and the concept of love is "Tis' better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all." The idea of risks and the the beauty of the outcomes from which we grow from.