If chemicals can alter our emotions, how do we know if the things we feel are actually real? This is the question in the heart of  Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect”, the latest from stalwarts Capital T Theatre, whose string of effective, relevant plays continues, this time with the help of one of Austin’s most original directors, and recent Austin Critics Table Award winner, Lily Wolff.

“The Effect” takes us into a research facility, in a near-future that could begin anytime now, or could be happening right now, under our own noses. Here, two young people are testing out a new anti-depressant that may have some strange side effects, side effects that could change their lives for the better, or the worse. Humor, passion, anger, violence, all dance in a vigorous tango to create a wild ride, but with firm hands on the reins, and a set of skilled actors at its center, its a ride that’s exhilarating to experience.

One of director Lily Wolff’s strongest talents lies in her ability to create dynamic situations from simple materials. Though her work in “The Effect” may not quite reach the heights of originality evident when she turned a stairwell into an arena, or a blackbox into a magical forest, as she did in her stunning production of “As You Like It”, she still transport us through space and time effortlessly here. Utilizing little more than a white backdrop and two beds, she creates everything from a testing facility, to an abandoned asylum, to a convention stage, making each scene believable along the way. She’s aided greatly in this by Austin’s king of projection design, Lowell Bartholomee, who’s modern, but subtle work helps to add to the near-future aesthetic, while never seeming too overwhelming. It’s all built upon nicely by Patrick Anthony’s lighting, whose nuanced use of cookies and gels creates intriguing landscapes, while never straying too far from the reality of the situation.

There’s something in the marriage of Prebble’s fluid writing and Rebecca Robinson’s casual delivery that makes every scene she’s in pop, which, in the process, creates one of Robinson’s best performances. Robinson has always had a unique skill in connecting to the emotional truth of a piece, and here, the wavelengths meet at a near perfect level, as character and performer mesh into one from her earliest scenes. Her movements flow naturally, her interactions with the other characters move effortlessly, and as the play explores her character in more depth, Robinson finds new ways to add dimension to her acting. It all seems so simple as we watch it on stage, but it takes a major talent to create such natural delivery.

“Energetic” is one of the those common phrases you hear bandied about to describe performances, but one actor who embodies the very concept of “energy” is Delante G. Keys in his performance as Tristan. He’s lively, bubbly, and incredibly expressive (especially in his face), but the energy he brings is something more than just exuberance. What’s really fascinating to watch is how he uses this energy in his darker moments, when he turns it to explosive anger and violence. Keys’ is not a prismatic energy, flying off into all directions, but instead a honed energy, that Keys utilizes with laser precision. His anger, his humor, his passion, is direct, precise, utilized in the most effective ways to make each scene sing. He creates some of the funniest moments in the play, but also some of the most heartbreaking, and even some of the hardest to watch. Tristan is a character who experiences his emotions in a very big way, and its a testament to Keys’ ability that he can play this hugeness with earnestness and verisimilitude.

Clever direction, a sharp script, and a game cast come together create a piece that’s in equal turns powerful, emotional, and humorous. The actors give measured, but strong performances throughout, creating undeniable chemistry with each other, molded under the strong guiding hands of Wolff, who here continues to climb the ranks of Austin directors. Capital T has a winning streak going back several years at this point, and if they have more like “The Effect” in the barrel, I don’t see that streak ending anytime soon.

“The Effect” is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through June 17th. For more information, to purchase tickets, visit capitalt.org.

Photo courtesy of Capital T Theatre.

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