Friday, August 11, 2023

Minnesota Fringe Festival 2023: "Starved": The Astonishing True Story of the University of Minnesota Starvation Experiment


Show: 26


By: Pat O'Brien

Written by: Richard Chin

Location: Augsburg Mainstage

Summary: A dramatization of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment that studied the effects of starvation on WWII conscientious objector volunteers.

Highlights: The History Theatre did a reading of this play as part of their 2018 "Raw Stages" new works festival. That was the first time I had heard of the 1944 experiment at the U of M, in which 36 conscientious objectors volunteered to partake as their wartime service. As someone whose day job is in clinical trials, I find the issues of informed consent and the ethics of science to be fascinating. In this 60-minute (or less) version of the play, we get two know two scientists (Pat O'Brien and John Gottskalkson) and three subjects (Samuel Ahern, Elliot Drolet, and Coleson Eldridge). The conscientious objectors were often belittled and seen as cowards, so they were eager to do something worthwhile - providing data that would help rehabilitate the thousands of starving people in Europe. The scientists conducting the experiment believe in the worthiness of it, but begin to doubt the morality of it as the men grow increasingly thin, depressed, and even psychotic. Even though these men agreed to participate knowing the expected effects, and were free to drop out at any time, things become murky when the effects of the experiment begin to inhibit their ability to think clearly. The three subjects are distinct characters, jokingly referred to as the preacher's son, the New York intellectual, and the wiseass. Throughout the course of the play their energy decreases as they become solely focused on food. It's a bleak and insightful play, well acted by the ensemble (also including Mickaylee Shaughnessy and Vickijoan Keck as various nurses and waitresses - this was the 1940s after all), that doesn't give us any clear answers about the ethics of this experiment, but leaves us to decide for ourselves.