Genetic medicine has been at the heart of numerous advances in recent years, enabling the detection of disease susceptibility and the development of breakthrough medical treatments. But genetic research has a somewhat dark history — one that is more recent and close to home than we might realize or want to believe. This is the idea behind The Colony, a new play by Gina Stevensen that’s currently making its world premiere at Goodluck Macbeth in Reno.
The play, which won the 2019 American Stage’s 21st Century Voices New Play Festival, explores the concept of eugenics, the practice of “improving” the human race by “breeding out” certain undesirable traits (whether they actually are hereditary or not).
Sound archaic and vaguely Nazi-like? Absolutely. But it’s not as outdated or foreign a notion as you’d like to believe. Stevensen’s play is inspired by a true story from 1920s America, and knowing this — not to mention even more recent ones — adds an especially chilling note to the story.
This one-act, 90-ish-minute play features a cast of only four. Set in Virginia in 1924, the show opens as a young woman, Carrie Buck (played by Marley Anderson) finds herself in a mysterious medical facility, where a nurse (Calista Lacy) and a doctor (Rod Hearn) keep asking Carrie strange questions and seem to be evaluating her. But neither of them will tell her the whereabouts of Vivian, her two-month-old daughter. One clue to the mystery of why Carrie is here, however, lies with Emma (played by Amanda Alvey), another patient at the colony who has an unexpected connection to Carrie’s past.
The doctor eventually reveals that this facility is The State Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble-Minded, though the unwieldy name is usually just shortened to “the colony.” As he begins to interview Carrie, however, his questions reveal that her intelligence, socioeconomic class, and family history are of particular interest. His area of specialty, we discover, is heredity, specifically the practice of eugenics. And as the mystery begins to unfold, we can see that Carrie is just one of many women — including some we might not expect — to have been affected by this doctor’s practices. In fact, its reverberations can still be felt today.
The play deals with preconceived notions about class, race, and mental health — topics as inflammatory and fraught with debate today as they were in the 1920s (if not more so). It asks us to confront our biases about the poor and uneducated, our willingness to pursue genetic research in the name of science, and even the concept of American exceptionalism. It’s easy to believe such stories couldn’t happen here in the U-S of A. But they could, and they have.
While Carrie is the axis around which the others rotate, her ignorance really is bliss; it’s their stories that will most haunt you. A local theater instructor, Rod Hearn is naturally charming and believable onstage, and he brings this to bear on his portrayal of the doctor, which makes him all the more terrifying. Despite his evil intentions, he’s utterly convinced that he has Carrie’s best interests at heart. Meanwhile, Calista Lacy has dual roles, including that of the nurse, but it’s in her second character of the night, in the last few shocking minutes of the play, where her versatility and capability truly shine.
The Colony is disturbing and will make you reconsider a lot of what you thought you knew about American society — which is why you ought to see it.
Good Luck Macbeth hosts the world premiere of The Colony for two more weekends, Sept. 2-4 and 9-11. Tickets and info here.
Cover image: Marley Anderson star as Carrie Buck, and Rod Hearn plays a doctor with strange motivations. Photo: Courtney Ropp for Good Luck Macbeth