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REVIEW: The Effect at Coal Mine Theatre

iPhoto caption: Photo by Dahlia Katz.
/By / Jul 18, 2023

It’s not often I’m unable to summon the words for a theatrical review.

But it’s also not often that a production swings so widely and hits so assuredly as in The Effect, presented in a dazzling Canadian premiere at Coal Mine Theatre. Lucy Prebble’s script echoes the very best of her work on Succession — sharp observations on brains and the demons inside them — and the work has found its match in director Mitchell Cushman, playful and innovative as usual. It’s a worthy watch, this Effect, as emotionally weighty as Coal Mine’s recent Yerma and The Sound Inside, but with a hair more mirth to counter its psychological depth. (More on that later.)

Prebble’s premise is simple: we’re in a clinical drug trial for an antidepressant of some sort. Connie and Tristan are patients, seemingly from distant walks of life in the real world but suddenly equalized in this bubble of medical routine. Lorna and Toby, meanwhile, are the so-called professionals, the psychiatrist administering the trial and the doctor holding its puppet strings.

When Connie and Tristan fall in love, the results are mixed — and devastating.

This is a cast and creative team for the ages, an all-star group of #theaTO luminaries. Cushman’s made magic once again with frequent collaborator Nick Blais, who’s credited here for the show’s exquisite set, lighting, and prop design. Blais’ set makes use of modular chairs, cleverly constructed with hinged slats of wood. The chairs become tables and medical examination beds at the drop of a hat, and they’re not only functional, but damn stylish — it’s perhaps some of the best set design we’ll see in Toronto this year. Those chairs are bolstered on each side of the alley-configured playing space with multi-purpose screens, in another wonderfully creative feat of design. Lighting choices, too, milk the drama of Prebble’s script for all it’s worth; in one particularly gutsy (and lengthy) sequence, the teensy Coal Mine is lit by only a flashlight, and it so works.

Leah Doz is a sublime Connie, with all the subtlety of a seasoned film actor but all the precision of a body accustomed to the stage. She plays well against Aris Athanasopoulos’ Tristan, who balances dorky flirtation with intriguing grit in his advances upon Connie. The two have an undeniable chemistry that’s thrilling to watch.

Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Jordan Pettle complete the ensemble as Lorna and Toby, adding an incisive, decidedly adult edge to the love story blooming between Connie and Tris. They frequently argue — about their pasts, about the efficacy of antidepressants, about suicide — but their dynamic has a surprising number of levels to it, and not once does it feel one-note.

In short, yes, The Effect is a marvel, one I’ll likely see again before it shutters. It’s a close competitor, in both quality and emotional resonance, to the company’s 2022 production of The Antipodes, a show I continue to think about daily more than a year later.

There’s a “but,” though, in the larger context around this show.

The Effect is the third in a series of crushingly dark plays about the chasms of mental illness at Coal Mine. From Yerma, to The Sound Inside, to now The Effect, each Coal Mine production in 2023 has launched audiences into the darkest depths of the human condition — and I’m not convinced the season curation, or all of the individual productions, have offered audiences the levity needed to temper that darkness. The Effect is by far the strongest show of the three, the play closest to starting a conversation about mental illness rather than simply bearing witness to it, but from a programming perspective, I’m left unsure of what Coal Mine has been trying to say this year. From Yerma’s grim display of self-inflicted gore to The Sound Inside’s assisted suicide, this season has carried its audiences from one pit to another, and it’s left us somewhere only slightly lighter with the conclusion of The Effect. 

The addition of optional trigger warnings to the website and within the theatre facility is great — and given the subject matter of these plays, necessary — but 2023’s Coal Mine season has painted a startlingly dire portrait of what it means to be mortal. In their next, I’d be thrilled to see something even a step closer to a comedy; the company has the talent to explore a broader range of atmospheres than perhaps we’ve seen this year.

While Coal Mine’s season programming remains a tad puzzling to me, The Effect does not, and it earns my unmitigated recommendation. Go go go. 

The Effect runs at Coal Mine Theatre through July 30. Tickets are available here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.



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