In the Name of Science

An Experiment With an Air Pump proves thought-provoking, if a little slow.

In the first scene of An Experiment With an Air Pump, a scholar asserts that scientists are beatified by their search for truth. A few scenes later, another character asks whether good scientists are, by definition, good human beings as well. As British dramatist Shelagh Stephenson's play continues, two different sets of characters -- one living in 1799, the other in 1999 -- engage in separate, parallel discussions that provoke even more questions about the ways in which beliefs are sometimes more important than people.

The two-hour-plus play, first staged in Manchester, England, in 1998, is long on discussion and, apart from some emotional fireworks in Act Two, short on action. And the Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre's production, staged at the Denver Civic Theatre, tends to settle into predictable conversational patterns that dampen the fiery, witty dialogue. Even so, director Robert Burns Brown encourages a healthy feeling of ensemble among the players, and a couple of portrayals inject the proceedings with needed warmth and personality.

The play's title refers to a painting that English artist Joseph Wright completed in 1768, a copy of which hangs prominently on the theater's back wall. In the painting, several people gather 'round as a lecturer demonstrates what happens to a bird when it's kept in a glass bowl and deprived of oxygen. Much like the research scientists and everyday folk in Stephenson's play, everyone in the picture, including a young child and a pair of lovers, has a different reaction to the experiment, which epitomizes the dilemma of reconciling scientific fact with human feeling. The ethical implications of bowing to scientific discovery are heightened by the fact that both sets of Stephenson's characters (which are played by the same actors) are living at the dawn of new centuries and, more important, in revolutionary eras: The nineteenth century gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, while the twenty-first heralded the arrival of advances in cloning and genetic engineering. The two groups also reside in the same English manor house and, despite being separated by 200 years of so-called progress, share similar behavioral patterns, vocational choices and outlooks on life.

Todd Webster and Theresa Reid in An Experiment With an Air Pump.
Todd Webster and Theresa Reid in An Experiment With an Air Pump.

Director Burns keeps the action moving along at a comfortable enough pace, if not always with adequate degrees of variety. While all of the performances are competent, newcomer Theresa Reid stands out for her touching turn as Isobel Bridie, an eighteenth-century Scottish domestic whose hopes for romance are dealt a crushing blow when she discovers a young suitor's true desires. Company stalwart Janet Chamberlain renders a pair of decent portraits as a long-suffering matron and as a modern scientist beset by the problem of whether to take a high-paying job as a genetic engineer or stick to her husband's principles and remain impoverished. And Jim Whiteman introduces some intriguing wrinkles as an idealist bent on springing into the nineteenth century and as a depressive who looks as though he'd sooner doze through the new millennium that face it. Appropriately enough, when the rest of the characters raise a glass in honor of the New Year's arrival, it's hard to say which attitude is a more effective way to deal with whatever lies ahead.

 
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