Tristan (Juan-Andres Apodaca) and Connie (Alexandra Renzo) get close as Dr. Lorna James (Danielle Reddick) looks on.

If falling in love is nothing but a chemical reaction, how do you know your feelings are real? Maybe your lust-driven body is manipulating your brain, or maybe it’s the other way around. You could ask the same question about depression. Common wisdom says it’s a chemical imbalance in the brain that can be fixed with medication — even though there’s no scientific evidence of this imbalance.

“Which of your feelings do you trust? Do you trust the feelings that come up in your body? Or do you trust the feelings that come up in your brain?” asks Robyn Rikoon, who directs The Effect, by Lucy Prebble, the first production of Santa Fe Playhouse’s Centennial Season.

“In the play, Dr. Toby argues that emotions aren’t real, and Dr. James argues that emotions are your reactions to the world. I think the play’s themes are based in the physical/chemistry world, and then it goes into fracturing, surveillance, psyche — in a Jungian way.”  

The Effect is set during a medical drug trial for a new antidepressant, where we meet test subjects Connie (Alexandra Renzo) and Tristan (Juan-Andres Apodaca). They’re the youngest participants, naturally drawn to together in the rarified atmosphere of the testing facility, which New York Times critic Ben Brantley compared to sleep-away camp in his review of the play’s 2016 Off-Broadway premiere at the Barrow Street Theater. (The Effect won the 2012 U.K. Critics Circle Award for Best New Play.)

“Ms. Prebble … has come up with an ingenious variation on one of the more common romantic formulas in fiction,” Brantley writes. “Put two attractive people in an unfamiliar hothouse environment, and see what blooms.”

Connie and Tristan exist under the watchful eye of a psychiatrist, Lorna James (Danielle Reddick), who is, in turn, supervised by Dr. Toby Sealey (Geoffrey Pomeroy), who looms over the proceedings, wielding the power to evaluate and judge Dr. James’s performance, to make or break her career. He’s in charge of the trial, but “he’s more of a marketing and human resources person. He’s charming. He represents the pharmaceutical companies,” Rikoon says, adding that she doesn’t think the play is arguing against medicating depression, but for taking a range of factors and treatment options into consideration.

“I think it’s just saying there’s a possibility that if you’re depressed, if you’re lethargic, or if you have trouble being optimistic in your life, it can be because life is hard, and shitty things happen, and it’s okay to feel sad about that.”

Dr. Lorna James (Danielle Reddick) confronts herself.

The medical-facility setting is especially resonant after two years of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions. It’s easy to see how the forced intimacy of the situation could lead to love between participants, with or without the influence of a new drug. “If you consider the idea that the play takes place now, this might be the first time these people are interacting up close with others, without masks, in a long time, even though they are basically in captivity,” Rikoon says.

Dr. James develops a friendly affection for Connie, who happens to be a psychology student. Both are career-driven and fear their darker natures. Connie gets analytical about her growing feelings for Tristan. “She’s very pragmatic, but deep down, she wants passion,” Rikoon says. She likens Tristan to Prince Charming, and says he’s flirtatious and likes to make people laugh. “I don’t think we’d get to know as much about the other characters if they weren’t interacting with Tristan. He’s the point on the scale that everyone balances on.”

And yet, the play belongs to Dr. James. “There are four characters, and they are all fully realized, breathing, three-dimensional people,” Rikoon says. “But in some ways, they’re all reflections of Lorna, like how in Jungian psychology, in dreams, every single person is a manifestation of yourself.”

“I noticed early on, reading my lines, that some of my conversations with the other characters felt like I was talking to myself, especially when talking to Connie,” says Reddick, the actress playing Dr. James. “It hadn’t clicked yet that this was actually going on in the play — it was this sort of weird, embedded thing. I’ve been working on a solo piece that’s very much about multiplicity of self, so I picked up on the echo of that in The Effect.”

As for whether love is real when it blossoms in a controlled environment, Rikoon says people can meet anywhere and the feelings they develop are just as valid. “How is meeting in a drug trial different from meeting at work, or in a bar? Every environment is contrived. It’s when you get out of that environment, and stay together past the initial infatuation, that the real work of love begins.”

— Jennifer Levin

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