“The Effect”: Love is a chemically splendored thing

Culture Curmudgeon

Rafi Silver (Tristan) and Katie Kleiger (Connie) in The Effect. Photo: Teresa Wood

When you first say “I love you” to someone you’re romantically interested in, you probably already know that your brain, along with your prospective lover’s grey matter (if he or she also finds you interesting), will be flooded with phenylethylamine or PEA — which triggers the release of dopamine, a substance that regulates emotions.

As you say those three words again and again, your brain produces more of the substances — which makes you feel those light-headed moments linked to romantic love. It’s a wonderful feeling that unfortunately doesn’t really last beyond a few months.

Of course, your love for your partner doesn’t end because you stop feeling the proverbial butterflies in your gut. As your relationship becomes more relaxed and established, both of you settle into a groove. That is unless you find out that the person you married or started dating in the first place wasn’t really the right one for you.

Half the time, especially in the U.S., the unhappiness that comes with that realization leads to the dissolution of the marriage. According to the American Psychological Association more than 50 percent of country’s marriages end in divorce.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business show on CGTN America. His analysis represents his views alone.Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

I’d like to think we’re all rational human beings (more or less) and capable of making life choices that don’t result in psychological and financial trauma. But given the frequency of divorce, I think our rationality and moral compass go out the window when we choose our life partner.

I’ve lost count of how many of my friends and relatives are divorced, or are in unhappy marriages and have begun having affairs. It’s rare that I come across a happily married couple. Either that, or I’m just hanging out with the wrong people.

So is there something about brain chemistry that makes us forego our logic when it comes to love? Are we just being fooled by our brains when we get together with that oh-so-interesting character in the office or that dinner party the other evening? Is there such a thing as love or is it being mistaken for the biological function that makes us want to breed to produce our progeny?

Eric Hissom and Gina Daniels in The Effect. Photo: Teresa Wood

Those are the types of questions being asked in the Studio Theatre’s latest production “The Effect”, written by British playwright Lucy Prebble and directed by David Muse. The play revolves around the four main characters, Connie (played by Katie Clegger), Tristan (Rafi Silver), Dr. Lorna James (Gina Daniels), and Dr. Tobey Sealey (Eric Hissom). It will be playing in Washington D.C. through October 29th.

Connie and Tristan both volunteer for a paid clinical trial for a new antidepressant and have to be sequestered for a whole month in a facility. They don’t know each other and their first encounter is an awkward one since they have nothing in common. Connie is a brainy graduate school student with a steady boyfriend. Tristan a high school dropout/free spirit dedicated to partying and seeing the world.

The drug they’re testing is revolutionary. Regular antidepressants take several weeks or months to take effect, but the medication they’re given can supposedly gain efficacy in as little as a week. It forces the brain to secrete PEA and dopamine which are linked to happiness. But just like any drug study, one of the test subjects is given a placebo.

Within a few days of taking the drug, Connie’s and Tristan’s moods lighten and their feeling of well-being is stronger. But the administrator, Dr. Lorna, is making sure they’re aware that they’re not to engage in extracurricular activities (like leaving the facility if they’re bored – something they of course do), to ensure the data isn’t influenced by external factors.

But as their brain chemistry gets altered, Connie and Tristan predictably start falling for each other. After a few more days, both profess their love for one another and secretly see each other in the evenings.

Halfway through the trial, their brains are scanned. The doctors are impressed with the drug since both test subjects’ MRIs show that the parts of the brain responsible for happiness are lit up like Christmas trees.

But the key question the play raises is: Have they genuinely fallen for each other? Or is it a side effect of the drug that creates the same emotions as someone in love? And then there’s that placebo question — we still don’t know who took the fake pill.

Rafi Silver (Tristan) and Katie Kleiger (Connie) in The Effect. Photo: Teresa Wood

When Prebble wrote “The Effect”, she wanted to explore the feeling of love. Thanks to the considerable skills of the actors playing Connie and Tristan, the idea that the two may have genuinely fallen in love, or genuinely-chemically fallen in love, or non-chemically reactionarily fallen in love, was entirely believable.

However the play doesn’t really answer the question of whether love is just a chemical reaction in the brain or a real emotion/feeling that leads to a romantic relationship where selflessness, compassion and sacrifice are definite hallmarks. Instead, Prebble leaves that to the audience to decide. She doesn’t make it easy though, and throws in a plot twist.

Katie Kleiger and Rafi Silver in The Effect. Photo: Teresa Wood

The last act is decidedly darker than the rest of “The Effect”, and can be interpreted several ways. The two that are most obvious have to do with how you interpret the play’s take on love.

The more positive interpretation shows that love is not just a series of chemical reactions. But I believe the more pessimistic take is the most compelling.

In this interpretation, love is reduced to a chemical reaction that fools you into feeling a connection to another person to ensure that you breed and continue your lineage. It fits into the last tragic acts of “The Effect” when the drug trial takes a disastrous turn and has an unintended impact on all involved. Instead of strengthening their bonds, the chemical reaction in the brain that is mistaken for love eventually leads everyone to diminished versions of their once vibrant lives.