Allison McCall and Jake Cote in a scene from “The Effect.” Photo by Katie Day

Do people sometimes really sense a certain magical “chemistry” going on between each other or are they just falsely interpreting reactions within their own brain?

Lucy Prebble’s 2012 play “The Effect,” the latest production from Mad Horse Theatre, concerns a research experiment into the effect of drugs on the human brain and asks if such medications might influence what we like to think of as true emotion.

Wrapping thought-provoking commentary about the relationship between the scientific community and the pharmaceutical industry around a pair of touching love stories, the play’s definitely in the company’s wheelhouse. It makes for a thoroughly engrossing time at the intimate, three-quarters-in-the-round theater space in South Portland.

Tristan and Connie are voluntary subjects in the test of a new antidepressant. She’s primarily in it because of her interest in psychology, while he just wants the paid fee in order to finance his free-spirited travels. A playful romance develops but is complicated by test rules and Connie’s doubts about their “feelings” being merely a side effect of the drug.

Meanwhile, the psychiatrists administering the trial, who have a history together, try to keep the test subjects in line while dealing with personal and professional doubts of their own.

The intensity of emotions among the characters gradually erodes any hold on scientific objectivity and unexpected consequences make for a rather raw and harrowing second act.

Director Christine Marshall gives rein to the specific talents of her cast. Medical devices and some projected text set the stage for audience’s immersion in the drama. A few doses of comedy were also appreciated by the large crowd on opening night.

Jake Cote employed a Southern drawl to further Tristan’s subtly assertive charm in the face of Connie’s resistance and the medical establishment’s rigidity. It was his performance that was most instrumental in bringing the play’s sympathies home.

Connie, played by Allison McCall, takes pains early on to describe her bouts of depression as not the same as what is categorized as clinical depression. The distinction for her opens the door to Tristan’s offer of escape from her prior life. McCall’s expressive face, alternately reflecting hope and despair, said as much as the ever-questioning lines of dialogue she delivered.

The doubts of those in official control added menace as things begin to go wrong. Amanda Eaton gave a touching performance as the professionalism of her Dr. James cannot contain her disillusionment. Mark Rubin’s seemingly invulnerable, if slightly demented, Dr. Sealey finally offered a sort of reassurance.

Intimate scenes between each couple ultimately provided the most comfort in a play that suggests it’s probably best to just accept the positive effects of that age-old thing called love.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

This story was updated at 10:15 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 13, to correct a mischaracterization of changes made to the play.


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