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SCRUTINY | Coal Mine Theatre’s The Effect Intrigues Despite Play’s Flaws

By Paula Citron on July 17, 2023

Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Leah Doz, Aris Athanasopoulos, and Jordan Pettle in The Effect (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Leah Doz, Aris Athanasopoulos, and Jordan Pettle in The Effect (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Coal Mine Theatre/The Effect, written by Lucy Prebble, directed by Mitchell Cushman, Coal Mine Theatre, July 9 to 30. Tickets here.

Lucy Prebble’s The Effect (2012) is a flawed but intriguing play.

The British playwright is clearly a woman of high intelligence. After all, she made her name with the brilliant Enron (2009) based on the scandal-plagued American energy company. In The Effect, she takes on big pharma.

The setting is a clinic where a 4-week drug trial for an unnamed antidepressant is being conducted. This drug causes the dopamine in the brain to increase. There we meet two of the paid volunteers, and two of the doctors.

Tristan Frey (Aris Athanasopoulos) is a free spirit who is in the trial to make money for travel. He jokes, he flirts and he’s always irreverent. Connie Hall (Leah Doz) is a serious-minded psychology student. She’s a bit cynical, and thinks she knows all about the ins and outs of drug trials. She has an older boyfriend. On first meeting, Connie finds the persistent Tristan to be downright annoying.

Dr. Toby Sealey (Jordan Pettle) is the man heading the trial. He really believes that antidepressants can cure the “Depression Epidemic” that is sweeping the world, and that is caused by, he believes, chemical imbalance. Dr. Lorna James (Aviva Armour-Ostroff), who is actually conducting the day to day workings of the trial, is efficient but dubious about the efficacy of the drug. It seems that she suffers from depression herself, and that she and Dr. Sealey were former lovers.

Now it appears that antidepressants induce the same rise in dopamine levels as falling in love. When Tristan and Connie do fall in love, Connie wonders if it is the effect of the drug, or a natural occurrence.

Dr. James thinks that perhaps outside forces, like close personal things like losing a job or big negative world events like war, can cause depression — that it’s not a disease caused by low dopamine levels, but is a natural state. Dr. Sealey, on the other hand, is pro psychopharmaceuticals and neuroscience. He also has a few secrets of his own.

Jordan Pettle in The Effect (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Jordan Pettle in The Effect (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

The play follows the two parallel couples, one following the course of love, the other following the drug debate, overlaid by their own compromised past.

As I said at the beginning, The Effect is flawed. For one thing, it is far too long. Secondly, the love story and the drug debate seem at times to go in circles. Prebble makes her point about questionable drug trials many times over.

On the other hand, the acting is wonderful. No one plays slimeball characters better than Pettle. Armour-Ostroff gives another of her stellar strong but vulnerable performances, while Doz is absolutely believable in her arc from humourless to love-beset.

I want to give special mention to Athanasopoulos. I have now seen the young actor in a couple of plays and from the get-go, he has been a stand-out in his character delivery. I predict he is on his way to a glorious career, be it stage or screen. He is definitely one to watch.

Cushman’s directing is deft and to the point as always, while Nick Blais’ lighting, set and props are a wonder. His specially designed furniture has to be seen to be believed. Also adding to the production values are James Smith’s perky original music, Cindy Dzib’s bang-on costumes, and Jack Considine’s realistic projections.

The play’s intriguing quality comes from its unusual topic, and the fact that Prebble does keep you guessing as to what is going to happen next, and finally, how the playwright’s immense imagination sees the drug trial and its consequences playing out.

Is it worth the schlepp to Woodbine and Danforth? Definitely.


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Paula Citron
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