Science confronts politics in ‘Gene Play’

Jonah Lipsky, Casey Ann Hayward, Paul Levine, Arnie Reisman, and Joann Green Breuer lead a post-performance discussion after the staged reading of Gene Play. —Brittany Bowker

The Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse was filled to capacity last Monday night for the reading of Gene Play, written by Jonah Lipsky and Casey Ann Hayward. The performance was part of the theater’s weekly Monday Night Specials, showcasing new work from budding and seasoned playwrights for a one-night-only performance.

The year was 1976, in Cambridge, and scientists at Harvard University were on the brink of breakthrough research. They wanted to conduct, as the play’s title suggests, gene editing. All they needed was approval for a lab renovation to bring it up to P3 moderate containment standards — one of the highest biosafety designations available. But the request for higher containment insinuated there was something to be contained.

“No one wants to see monsters crawling out of sewers,” Mayor Vincenti, played by Paul Munafo, said.

The play is based on real events and ethical discussions that took place during a city council meeting in Cambridge during the summer of 1976. To modify DNA, or not to modify DNA — the question left the science community split, and the public in the dark.

In-the-crowd characters shot up from their seats, stating their point of view as the heated debate jumped from person to person in the play. Harvard professors, researchers, members of the National Institutes of Health, students, community members, and the town mayor all held weight in the conversation.

Harvard professor and researcher David Madison, played by Arnie Reisman, posed the underlying message, “Ask a person what they would risk for the health of themselves or a loved one.” In the end, the answer is “Anything.” Progress prevails.

The second act flashed forward to present day, and presented the debate in regulation and ownership over the gene editing technology CRISPR. This act surfaced similar questions of how far to push science, but added the element of credit and intellectual ownership over the technology. The act also brought up issues of gender equality.

Actors read from a black binder, and the house lights stayed on for the majority of the performance. The informality of a staged reading gives the theater a heightened feeling of intimacy; there’s something about being among the first to feel a script’s pulse.

Mr. Lipsky and Ms. Hayward sat in the audience, quietly observing their work as it came to life. They welcomed a post-performance discussion and Q and A.

“We’ll be making some cuts,” Ms. Hayward laughed, getting the panel discussion started.

“I was actually at this town meeting in 1976,” Paul Levine said. “I was too,” Mr. Reisman added. Mr. Levine is a West Tisbury resident and a former professor at Harvard University. He worked with Mr. Lipsky and Ms. Hayward on the science and fact-gathering for the script.

“The play is necessary because of what’s going on,” Mr. Lipsky said, touching on the familiar ethical questions posed throughout the performance. Is the obligation to do no harm more important than the obligation to do good?

“Science theater is out there, but it draws in a different audience,” Ms. Hayward said. “You can dramatize something to make difficult information accessible in a short amount of time.”


Theatergoers can witness readings of new works every Monday night at 7:30 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse.