Genetic science is moving at the speed of light and physicians face ethical issues associated with the modern reproductive technology called PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis).
The Old Dominion University theatre department is performing “Orchids” to promote discussion about the ethical issues that PGD presents to physicians and expectant mothers. Jennifer Alonzo of ODU’s theatre department and Robin Blume from ODU’s philosophy department partnered on the project to provide a full view of the issue.
According to the director, Alonzo, the play is interdisciplinary and asks us to look at a specific question from a variety of fields. “Something I want to bring to the undergraduates is the idea that all the disciplines have something to bring to the major questions in our world,” she said.
The story is told through the eyes of four protagonists, each carrying an equal weight in the show. Heather and Rose are patients at the same fertility clinic. Heather has to use in vitro fertilization to have a healthy pregnancy. Rose is undergoing PGD to screen her embryos for gene markers for Tourette’s syndrome, a medical disorder that runs in her family.
Katie Prescott plays the role of Heather. Playing a character with Tourette’s syndrome challenged her. “I did not want to look like I was making fun of Tourette’s syndrome,” she said. Prescott relied on YouTube and people who are experienced with Tourette’s syndrome for inspiration.
Rose struggles between being compelled to protect her baby by any means or suggesting that a life with a disability is not worth living.
Dr. Staiman and Dr. Blume are physicians specializing in reproductive services. Dr. Staiman has an award-winning project altering the genes of orchids to create a perfect flower.
Dr. Staiman feels positively about PGD, but is also sensitive to the patient’s choice to forgo the procedure. Jasmine Waters, who played Dr. Stainman, said, “I don’t agree with her, but she is really about personal choice. I am a lot more like her than I thought.”
The orchids represent the women’s reproductive organs from a physical perspective and they represent the altered embryos from another perspective. Dr. Stainman references “perfect orchids” throughout the play, and perfect orchids are synonymous with a perfect child, built through PGD technology.
PGD allows women to screen embryos for genetic characteristics. The diagnosis allows women with genetic disabilities to select embryos with desirable genes without a genetic abortion.
However the procedure is painful, expensive, and decreases the woman’s chance of pregnancy. As PGD becomes more advanced, common physicians expect that women will use the procedure for shallow purposes such as choosing the sex of a baby or desirable physical traits.
The Jones Institute at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk is a leading center for reproductive medicine including IVF and PGD.
“Orchids” was written in 1995 by Canadian playwright Jeff Nisker who was a scientist and physician in the infancy stages of PGD technologies.
According to Nisker, the PGD technologies were too advanced for physicians at the time and he needed the public’s opinion. “Just because we can do something, ought we do it?” he said.
Nisker decided that theatre was the best way to present the ethical issues and scientific facts to the general public. “Orchids” is his first of seven plays about different issues in healthcare policy.
Superstitions and traditions are an important part of performance art. The cast did a chant before the opening performance, according to Alonzo, that was brought to ODU by one of her first students. “It made me happy because it reminded me of my very first show here,” she said.
Interpreting a play written by another person was nerve wrecking for Alonzo. But according to Nisker, it was a wonderful interpretation that brought tears to his eyes on opening night.
Alonzo’s favorite part of the play is the choreography during the scene changes. “They take me on an emotional journey between scenes,” she said.
“Orchids” is at the university’s Goode Theatre Thursday, Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at www.oduartstickets.com or at the box office.
By: Megan Stamper