Photos: Downtown Tucson Mural Program

Photos: Downtown Tucson Mural Program

Eight new murals in downtown Tucson are part of the City of Tucson Mural Program, in conjunction with Tucson Arts Brigade.

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It’s the drugs.

Or is it?

That is a central question in “The Effect,” currently on the Live Theatre Workshop stage.

The Lucy Prebble play was inspired by a real-life drug trial that went tragically wrong: In 2006, the American pharmaceutical company Parexel conducted a drug trial in London that resulted in failed organs and lost appendages for some of the participants.

“The Effect” opens as two strangers, Tristan (Steve Wood) and Connie (Emilee Foster), are at a medical research center, willing participants in a four-week trial for a new antidepressant.

He’s flippant and high energy. She’s cautious and highly strung.

As the tests progress, the two fall in lusty love, she reluctantly, he not so much. But is that the antidepressant working it’s elevated magic, or is it the real thing?

Maryann Green directed a fluid production that found the humor and the heart of the piece, while it effectively explored the ethics of drug trials.

And she had a cast that lived in the characters’ skins.

Steve Wood, who is fast becoming one of Tucson’s finer actors, had a challenging role. Tristan starts out as a bit of a flirt and a jerk. But as the play progresses, he is angry, passionate, desperate. Each of his transitions was seamless and rang true.

Foster’s Connie has high anxiety, and is much more cautious than Tristan in indulging in her feelings. When she falls, she begins to question whether his feelings are related to the drug he may be receiving — or is he on a placebo? Foster made her anxiousness and her lust palpable.

A parallel story involving the two doctors who conduct the research feels contrived. The two once had an affair, sans drugs, and the effort to parallel the stories was strained.

Still, Avis Judd and Jon Thuerbach as the doctors embraced their characters and brought them so fully to life that we forgave the playwright for the contrivance.

While that secondary love story isn’t necessary, this is: the characters clash about the rights and wrongs of the drug trial they are conducting. He is cavalier and anxious to get results; she is concerned about the impact on the research subjects.

Green added a few touches that underscored the vulnerability of the patients. The use of a scrim in earlier scenes was particularly effective at doing that and added some visual humor. She also made sure that a play with a sort of chaos at its center never became chaotic.

“The Effect” is funny, certainly, but it also tackles important questions about human emotions and the roles drugs, and drug testing, play in our world today. What could be dry and complex — the research — and a cliché — boy meets girl, etc. — become heart-wrenching and clear in this play and production.

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