Company presents sci-fi onstage
Science fiction and post-cataclysmic futures are all the rage on movie screens and on bookshelves these days, but the genres are less represented on theater stages.
Alyssa Cokinis' “Happy Pills” stands out in that regard — but not only in that regard.
MadLab's production of “Happy Pills,” a 2016 offering from the Midwestern playwright, continues this weekend and next at its Downtown space. The play is set in a future following nuclear attacks on several major U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C. Those who weren't killed in the initial blasts are suffering a cruel fate: The nuclear fallout has altered their brain chemistry, resulting in the loss of any ability to feel emotion.
“I probably should know the exact science of how I decided to do this, but I decided exact science wasn't the most important part,” Cokinis joked in a recent phone interview. “The fallout wipes you of your emotions. If you didn't die immediately, physically, you die emotionally.”
A fledgling government arranges for the development and mass production of pills that create emotions.
The story is told from the perspective of Fern, who is a protagonist but far from a hero. “She is just a person who is coming of age and learning how not to have to rely on others, who struggles to come to terms with herself,” Cokinis said.
Part of that struggle is dealing with the knowledge that Fern's mother is the one hired by the government to create the emotion pills. It becomes clearer throughout the play that they do not work as well as or in the way that the government says they do. Whether this is nefarious in intent (“There are a couple instances where it's hinted that maybe this government isn't what we thought it was,” Cokinis said) or merely a gaffe and attempt to cover up is not made clear.
“There's definitely a critique of Big Pharma. Screw them,” Cokinis said. “I had the option to be treated medically and I turned it down because I saw firsthand what that kind of medication can do. And while it can help you and get you back on track, it was still numbing in a different way. You regain some sense of self, but a muted version of yourself.
“[Medication] does work for some people and I think it should be used by people for whom it works. Maybe I should have taken it. But I've just had so many friends who said they felt muted.”
There are also themes of the depth and breadth of human emotion.
“There are only three or four pills to emulate three or four different emotions, but human feelings and emotions are so much more complex than taking a pill that says this is your sad pill, this is your happy pill,” Cokinis said.