Theater

Arcadia

There's so much richness to Arcadia that once you've seen it, you want to acquire and read the text, ask your mathematician friends to explain the science, re-read Byron, study the history of the English garden, and generally try to plumb all the ideas that Tom Stoppard has set whirling about the stage. He's tossed Newtonian physics, fractals, chaos theory and Fermat's theorem into this heady, conversational mix, but you don't really need to understand them in order to enjoy the play, which brims with charm and wit and intertwined mysteries that keep you happily sleuthing. The math and science serve as metaphors, vehicles for exploring a very basic set of dichotomies — order and disorder, rational thought versus passion, classicism against romanticism — although the ever-changing dynamics between these dualities breed endless new fusions and, hence, endless new dichotomies.

Add one more mystery: the passing of time, and how the past and our interpretation of it influence the present.

Arcadia begins at the Coverly estate in Sidley Park. Thirteen-year-old Thomasina Coverly is at her lessons with her tutor, Septimus. Thomasina is a fidgety child, but she's also a prodigy who, we soon learn, is instinctively developing theories of physics that won't come to fruition for more than a century: She grasps the essential concepts, but the body of knowledge and the technological capability to validate them do not yet exist. Septimus is alternately condescending toward and awed by her. Their interaction is complicated by Thomasina's awakening sexuality, which, naturally enough, focuses on Septimus. Her first question to him is about the meaning of the words "carnal embrace." But Septimus is preoccupied, having made it his mission to seduce every adult female in the house, including Thomasina's mother and the wife of a minor poet, Ezra Crater.

The next scene takes place in the same room but in the present time, as three very different thinkers attempt to piece together the history of Coverly. Bernard Nightingale, a scholar whose carelessness about fact is matched only by his pomposity, is developing a theory that has Lord Byron staying at the house and eventually killing Crater in a duel. This, Nightingale asserts, explains Byron's never-satisfactorily-understood departure from England. To make the theory work, he has to leave out a few inconvenient bits of evidence and twist a couple of others. Meanwhile, Hannah, a more meticulous seeker of truth and a historian of gardens, is quietly working through her own ideas, focusing particularly on a mysterious hermit who lived on the grounds for twenty years. And Valentine, a descendent of Thomasina's who has inherited Coverly, is a mathematician studying fluctuations in animal populations and using the meticulous records of grouse shoots on the Sidley estate to create his model. Each scholar is shaping a narrative, and each has part of the truth. We will soon learn that Byron was indeed a visitor at Coverly. And we'll discover just how a dwarf dahlia can invalidate an elaborate hypothesis while a tortoise proves another.

Like all good art, Arcadia is more than the sum of its parts. The plotting is profoundly satisfying, whether its pieces are clicking neatly into place or stubbornly failing to cohere. The script sometimes sports an almost Wildean wit, and Stoppard keeps your frontal lobes buzzing. Though the characters are drawn satirically rather than sympathetically, you find yourself emotionally moved. There's something so evocative in the image of the brilliant young girl and her tutor, their work together and struggle for knowledge, the waltz that ends the play (both a formal dance, and a wonder-filled exploration, a carnal embrace of the sweetest and most wistful innocence). And the best part of the Firehouse Theater Company production is this pair of performances: Jono Waldman gives Septimus Byronic good looks and a sense of juicy sexuality held in control; and Jamie Ann Romero is a charming and vital Thomasina. Although she does a bit too much childish flinging about in the early scenes, she later reveals a grave, lovely centeredness.

Ryan Everett Howard is an appropriately unflappable, sweet-natured Valentine, and Gregory Adams makes Bernard Nightingale appropriately obtuse. But other roles are miscast, and a few embarrassingly badly acted. While Terry Ann Watts brings intelligence to Hannah Jarvis, she comes across as anything but English. In fact, almost universally, the English accents are tooth-grindingly awful. How much does this matter? So much that it almost destroys the play. Arcadia demands swift, lucid speech, but there were long passages where I simply couldn't make out what the actors were saying. Pulling the meaning from their mush-mouthed speech felt rather like reaching back through the mists and swamplands of time to retrieve a few bright-edged fragments of truth. But I managed, and in the end, I left the theater filled with a sense of joy at the intricacy and mystery of life.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman