Take a pill and fix your relationship. That’s the promise of the titular miracle drug in Empathitrax by Ana Nogueira, now playing at Second Thought Theatre at Bryant Hall on Dallas’ Kalita Humphreys Campus through April 28.
The nameless protagonists, Him and Her, are a couple struggling with Her depression. Desperate to understand each other, the couple tries Empathitrax, a new drug that allows users to experience their partner’s feelings by touching their skin.
“I think there’s something in this play that sets up our American fascination with pharmaceuticals as a fix, as finite. This will fix the problem,” Drew Wall, who plays Him, said. “In this case, they’ve figured out how to monetize empathy,” Jenny Ledel, who plays Her, said. “What if you could buy this thing that would make you be better at empathy?”
Her hopes the drug will help her communicate her emotional turmoil to Him.
“She is experiencing some overwhelming feelings and emotions and thoughts that she was having a hard time articulating. I think she thinks that if she takes the pill, she won’t have to explain her mental illness, or she won’t have to explain all of the thoughts and feeling to Him. He’ll just get it and she won’t feel more shame about these feelings by trying to articulate them and not have her partner understand them,” Ledel said.
The pharmaceutical industry is personified by Joe, the overeager drug salesman. “Joe’s number one goal is just to make the sale and make sure people are buying Empathitrax so if that means kind of dirty sales tactics, that’s what it takes,” Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, who plays Joe, said.
Joe wins Her over easily. “She likes Joe because Joe confirms that she’s normal all the time. Joe knows she’s on Zoloft. He tells Her what she wants to hear,” Ledel said. Him is a tougher sale. “Him seems to be hesitant about all of this, but he will over and over again agree to it for the sake of Her,” Wall said. “He’ll go down that rabbit hole if he thinks it will help, whatever that risk is.”
Ramirez also plays Him’s friend from high school, Matty D. “I love how the playwright describes him. She describes him as a misguided bro,” Ramirez said. “Matty D offers a different perspective, an outside perspective of how they’re doing and how they can fix their relationship.”
Like Ledel and Wall, Ramirez graduated from Baylor University. He will join the Dallas Theater Center’s Diane and Hal Brierley Acting Company, beginning with the 2018-2019 season. “For me professionally, personally and artistically, it just means I’m going to have the wonderful opportunity to work with some incredible people and that I am going to learn a lot and grow a lot and I think that, above all, is what I’m most excited about,” Ramirez said.
Empathitrax is not the first time Ledel and Wall have played a troubled couple in a Second Thought Theatre production. They played Zack and Abby in Amy Herzog’s Belleville in 2015. The fictional couples could not be more different.
“First of all, Zack was lying about their relationship and so they were off on a bad start pretty much from the beginning. Her and Him actually were the opposite. They started out perfect soul mates and everything was almost too perfect. Then one day, Her woke up with depression and did not know how to be in the world anymore and therefore in the relationship,” Ledel said.
“They are willing to explore and be honest with each other. They don’t talk around each other. They’re much better at directly communicating, even when that’s about to hurt the other person. Outside the Empathitrax, they have a pretty normal relationship,” Wall said.
Nogueira explores the impact of mental illness on a relationship without judging or lecturing, with an undramatic onset of Her’s depression. “There was no marking event that caused it,” Ledel said. “To Her, she woke up one day and that’s how she felt. If only someone had died, or she lost her job and all these things happened on top of things to cause her to be depressed. If only that was the case. That seems, on the outside, to be fixable.”
Fixing every character flaw leads to unexpected side effects. “I think we have this really sexy idea in America with our relationships. We need to be constantly fixing them; that there’s constantly a problem to be solved and some problems aren’t solvable. Trying to get in there and mess with them only makes them more difficult, more convoluted and bad for you,” Wall said.
Perhaps a partner does not need to be fixed, but instead appreciated. “Her says, ‘What’s normal?’” Ramirez said. “Sometimes it’s okay not to be normal.”