On a brightly lit platform within Northern Arizona University’s Studio Theater, Dr. Lorna James, played by theater and business management student Michaela Rodriguez, asks Connie Hall, played by theater student Gillian Norton, whether she’s ever been depressed. Connie says she feels sad sometimes, but differentiates that emotion from depression and having a chemical imbalance in her brain.
After being approved to test a strong antidepressant in a drug trial, Connie has to figure out her emotions toward Tristan Frey, another trial participant, played by theater student Nathan Gayan. Can her emotions be trusted? Is anything perceived in the world actually real?
The Department of Theatre at NAU explores these questions in its upcoming production of The Effect, written by British playwright Lucy Prebble. At its core, the play deals with the matter of heart versus mind and whether the surge of dopamine the two drug trial participants experience is from genuine love or simply a side effect of the pills. Adding to that question is the fact revealed later on that one of them may only be taking a placebo.
“Connie is definitely someone who follows her mind a lot more,” Norton says. “She has to think through everything and she’s not as trusting with her heart.”
The opposite is true of Dr. James, and Rodriguez describes her character as someone who is trying to prove they’re capable of putting their feelings aside to be an objective clinician in the trial.
The intimate cast is rounded out by theater student Morgan Gallob as Dr. Toby Sealey, the lead clinician who’s made it his life goal to map out the intricacies of the mind.
While Connie volunteered for the trial for a learning experience to add to her studies as a psychology student, Tristan is a repeat volunteer who participates in the paid trials as a way to fund his travels. As Tristan and Connie develop feelings for each other, they become inseparable at the risk of skewing the trial results.
“What’s been great about these four is they’ve found ways to make those four people incredibly real and incredibly nuanced so that we have these huge, huge questions and they’re being explored by people who are relatable,” says director Christina Gutierrez-Dennehy.
Gayan made his debut with NAU Theatre as Colin Craven in last year’s production of The Secret Garden, and says it’s been a good experience to take on a play on the opposite spectrum from the childhood story.
“I haven’t done anything this adult or serious, and it’s really pushed me as an actor,” he says. “It deals with very real themes and it’s just good to be a part of something that is that real.”
The play involves sexual themes, nudity, violence and explicit language as it offers a real look at mental health struggles.
“This play in itself has been pretty hard,” says Gallob. “I’m sure a lot of college kids deal with depression, and last year was pretty hard on me specifically. My stepbrother overdosed and died, and my stepfather killed himself three months after, so watching this constantly is a little hard.”
Many people feel a stigma when talking about their mental health and assume they’re alone in their struggles, but research has shown one in five college students experience anxiety or depression, and 322 million people worldwide live with depression, according to a study published last year in Our World in Data. Often, depictions of depression in media are exaggerated and involve people breaking down in dramatic tears, but more subtle signs of depression can be an inability to concentrate and an increase in sleep, or the person may become comfortably numb and simply go through the motions of their day-to-day life without feeling particularly happy or sad.
The Effect brings these issues into the light, presenting an understanding environment in which a healing discussion can take place to let people know that help is possible.
“I think the more important thing is to have the conversations about mental illness, recognizing that mental illness is a much bigger part of more peoples’ lives than I think we originally thought,” Gutierrez-Dennehy says.
While she has taught college classes for the past eight years, she says she’s seen more students talking openly about their struggles with mental health in recent years. But that’s not to say it necessarily means more people are experiencing problems than in the past; rather, more are simply coming forward and seeking help.
“The way in which we as a society are becoming more comfortable talking about it and kind of figuring out how to deal with, either with medication or not, is a positive thing,” Gutierrez-Dennehy says, “and so I think stories like this that are asking these questions, or at least getting mental illness into the conversation, is important.”
“Even though it is a show and it’s supposed to entertain, we want to bring that realness to the table,” Rodriguez says.
Performances of The Effect will be held at NAU’s Studio Theater in the Performing and Fine Arts building, 1115 S. Knoles Dr., Friday through Sunday from Feb. 22 to March 3. Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7:30 p.m. with a matinee performance Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $8 for NAU students and youth, $14 for the general public, $12 for seniors and NAU employees, and can be purchased through the NAU Central Ticket Office on campus, online at www.nau.edu/cto or by phone at 523-5661.