Review of The Gradient at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

    Steph Del Rosso’s new play, The Gradient, is named for its setting—a residential facility where people accused of sexual misconduct receive treatment. In the not-too-distant future depicted in the play, the alternative to The Gradient is prison.

    What makes The Gradient special is its use of an algorithm that customizes each client’s treatment based on all the information fed into the facility’s computers.

    The main character is Tess, a new employee at The Gradient. She left the isolation of a job in a lab for a position where she thinks she can make a difference. The Gradient follows her evolution from an unabashed admirer of the algorithm to a disillusioned burnout.

    Stephanie Machado portrays Tess with total commitment, bringing clarity to the stages of Tess’s emotional journey even when Tess herself is confused. Christina Acosta Robinson smartly plays Tess’s boss, Natalia, who is a daunting presence at the start of the play.

    William DeMeritt is the colleague one would hope for in his portrayal of Tess’s coworker, Louis. Stephen Cefalu, Jr. provides welcome humor as eight of Tess’s clients, giving each one a voice, manner, and personality that are easily recognizable in recurring appearances.

    Having all the clients but one played by a single actor is a clever way of focusing attention on the final client: Jackson, a tech entrepreneur, who is shrewdly portrayed by Yousof Sultani. Perhaps because he is used to being in charge, Jackson plays a more active role in his treatment than the rest of the clients. He does not just respond to questions. He initiates conversation in a constant effort to personalize his connection with Tess. Keeping him on the prescribed path grows increasingly difficult.

    Early in the play Tess is cautioned against forming attachments at The Gradient. For Tess to have heeded this advice would be the equivalent of Chekov’s gun not going off. Surprisingly, the algorithm’s customized treatment does not prepare Tess for handling Jackson’s manipulation, even though it might be the sort of behavior that led Jackson to The Gradient.

    The satire here points out the danger of ceding control over therapy to technology that claims to have all the answers. This is a valuable lesson, but if I were a social scientist, I might question the play’s portrayal of my discipline.

    The production concept of director by Amelia Acosta Powell features a fluent presentation of the play’s technology in the scenic design by Carolyn Mraz, the projections by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, the lighting by Mextly Couzin, the costumes by Raquel Barreto, and the sound by Sadah Espii Proctor.

    The Gradient continues through October 24 in Catherine B. Berges Theatre at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), 6880 Washington Avenue, in University City.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Phillip Hamer