Having just built themselves a stately home, the folks at Writers Theatre are christening it with a play set in one. Tom Stoppard’s 1993 Arcadia takes place in a study at Sidley Park, an English estate that’s housed members, guests, and servants of the Coverly clan for at least 200 years. Michael Halberstam’s staging of Arcadia, meanwhile, unfolds at the new Writers Theater complex in downtown Glencoe, designed on a multimillion-dollar budget by Jeanne Gang’s Studio Gang Architects.
Each venue is worth visiting, though one of them isn’t quite plumb.
The building feels open and light, with a rooftop courtyard, a wraparound balcony, and a two-story lobby that lacks only philosophers in togas to feel like some airy plaza in ancient Athens. The 250-seat main theater is a steep-sided bowl that keeps even audience members in the upper rows close, and the two people I glimpsed through the glass walls of the patrons’ lounge seemed to be having a lovely intermission.
The show inside the building has the advantage of having been constructed around a masterpiece. Stoppard’s career can look at times like a lonely attempt to update Restoration-style wit for the modern theater, and Arcadia is his greatest success in that regard. It starts in 1809, with precocious 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly working alongside her tutor, Septimus Hodges. He hopes to keep her puzzling over Fermat’s last theorem (“When x, y, and z are whole numbers each raised to the power of n, the sum of the first two can never equal the third when n is greater than 2″) while he reads something by Ezra Chater, the bad poet he’s just cuckolded. But Thomasina isn’t precocious for nothing. She’s aware of the sexual busyness going on around her and presses Septimus for a definition of “carnal embrace.” (“The practice of throwing ones arms around a side of beef,” he parries, feebly, at first.)
Everything Thomasina is so curious about becomes history in the very next scene, when a couple of modern-day literary researchers invade the same room she sat in so many years earlier. Hannah Jarvis is occupied with landscaping changes that took place at Sidley Park during Thomasina’s adolescence, believing that the transition from ordered gardens to a Gothic faux wildness reflects the decline of Enlightenment rationality into Romantic fuzzy-mindedness. She’s particularly interested in the identity of a hermit who’s said to have lived in a faux hermitage amid the faux wildness, with only a tortoise for company. Alcoholic, egotistical Sussex don Bernard Nightingale shows up looking for proof—or, failing that, a gut feeling—that Lord Byron spent time on the estate, and may even have fought a duel there.
Stoppard has a way of making me feel very smart and very stupid at the same time: Smart when I catch on to the occasionally miraculous things he’s saying and doing, stupid because I realize that I wouldn’t say or do them in a million years. In Arcadia, that conflict can get positively giddy. This is a very funny play about epistemology. About reason and intuition, investigation and luck, learning and knowing, academics and autodidacts, horses and carts, empathy and the nature of facts. About chaos theory, Newton’s universe, and the possibility of a cosmic determinism, or what Walt Whitman was getting at when he wrote that “all truths wait in all things.”
But it’s also a romance, both comic and tragic—with the added complication that certain relationships are inseparable from Stoppard’s larger subject. Halberstam and his cast of 12 have a strong, clear command of the scholarly and fleshly issues in Arcadia, yet they fail to make sense of its central connections: between Hannah and Bernard, and Septimus and Thomasina. Scott Parkinson pushes Bernard’s excesses so far that it’s hard to believe that Kate Fry’s Hannah—equally extreme in her reserve—would find him engaging, even as a phenomenon. Something like the acid banter between Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday is called for but never attained. And though Greg Matthew Anderson embodies a suave, enjoyable Septimus, he never crosses over into realms that would explain the influence Elizabeth Stenholt’s Thomasina exerts over him. On the other hand, Rod Thomas and Chaon Cross are each a hoot in supporting roles. v