As part of the Hollins-Mill Mountain Theatre Winter Festival of New Works, “Adverse Effects” opened Friday night on Waldron Stage, with an emotionally resilient audience on hand.
That fortitude was tested by Taylor Gruenloh’s play about a small-town Missouri couple dealing with their daughter’s suicide, believed to have been caused by an anti-psychotic drug. Phil, played by Neil David Seibel, and Jessica (Amanda Mansfield) are coping years later with the slow disintegration of their marriage and the tangled web of the future. On the flip side, Richard (Michael Mansfield), a university research scientist and Jessica’s brother, is in the throes of an ethical and moral conundrum, centering on his relationship with the “nonprofit” marketing arm of a drug company and one of its reps.
In a third storyline, a local journalist, Maurice (James Wise Jr.), finds his way back into serious journalism when he and Phil conveniently run into each other.
On the surface, “Adverse Effects” is a problem play — taking up the social issue of corporate greed destroying Main Street and its powerless occupants — but at its heart, the play is driven by its well-drawn characters and the actors playing them.
Seibel’s casualness and ease effectively glaze over the pain brimming beneath Phil’s quest for truth, while the desperate tension that Amanda Mansfield inserts into every scene hint at the Chekhovian gun that will sooner or later go off.
For the most part, Gruenloh avoids the stock characterizations of the journalist and the professor in Maurice and Richard. Wise Jr. and Michael Mansfield help by inserting a genuineness that fends off their respective character’s professional stereotypes. The well-worn cynicism and the clinical calm that Wise Jr. employs makes Maurice convincing. And although a corporate and refined scientist, Michael Mansfield breathes authenticity into Richard as if every word were his last.
Yet, there are times when the dialogue crosses from the hard-chiseled realm of theater into the paunchy cinematic realm. The oft-used “Who would want to bring a child into this world” comes from Richard in a moment of despair when it need not. Also, Maurice’s lines can play more to the audience’s inevitable support of the little man than to the character’s essential qualities.
That aside, what marks a good playwright is his sense of how fiction works in motion. Gruenloh has that, which makes “Adverse Effects” a theater experience well worth attending.