A Tribe, a Researcher and ‘Informed Consent’

Manon Halliburton as Jillian and L. Roi Hawkins as Graham. Photo: Cynthia Levin

At the bottom of the Grand Canyon lives a Native American tribe, the Havasupai. They try as hard as they can to live life in symbiosis with the nature around them, but the rest of America really makes that all but impossible. The tribe is now going through an epidemic of diabetes.

This sad (but true) story serves as the inspiration for Informed Consent, the play that is running through April 1 at the Unicorn Theatre. It follows the struggles of a genetic anthropologist, Jillian, who is desperately trying to find ways to combat Alzheimer’s disease. She is hired to do a study on the Havasupai and their diabetes problem. Seeing a double opportunity, she tries to persuade the tribe to agree to give blood to be studied in the hopes of finding something to help their chronic health problems. This sets off a chain of events in which science clashes with culture, data clashes with myth, and intentions clash with ethics.

It’s kind of a weird play because Jillian is not really all that likeable. She can be patronizing, overbearing and pushy. She may or may not be approaching the research study with a sense of fair treatment. Even though she’s the main character, I would sometimes find myself rooting against her, not for her, in her personal and noble quest.

The fact that Jillian can be so compelling while at the same time someone I would never want to go camping with is not only due to the smart and canny script but to the performance of Manon Halliburton. At the beginning of the play, I attributed my annoyance with the character to the idea that Halliburton was not a very good actress. But I soon realized that my problem was with the character Jillian, not the actress Halliburton. Halliburton knows how to make this role work.

Even though the play is fairly short, it condenses multiple issues into overlapping scenes; most of the rest of the cast members play multiple roles, depending on what Jillian is doing at the moment. And the ending is surprisingly philosophical, musing on ideas of identity and creation stories.

Informed Consent is a smart play that talks actual science, with a human plot that isn’t often explored on stage. You will most likely leave the theater wondering who you are, in the grand scheme of things.

Performances of Informed Consent will continue through April 1 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. Tickets: https://www.unicorntheatre.org or 816-531-7529.


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