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An Experiment with an Air Pump, Northlight Theatre. One character in Shelagh Stephenson’s drama accuses another of intolerance for ambiguity. This seems also to describe director B.J. Jones, who’s reduced this subtle work about tensions between spirituality and science to a battle between wicked scientists and frail artists. In the opening scene the production has the feel of mishandled Shaw, organized around positions instead of people. The fluency and intensity later pick up, but a determination remains to telegraph the meaning of every remark and the right side of every debate.
An Experiment with an Air Pump explores scientific ethics in the tradition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a debt Stephenson obliquely acknowledges. “Other girls wanted to marry Mick Jagger,” says research geneticist Ellen (Peggy Dunne). “I wanted to be God.” Ellen then transforms herself into Susannah, wife of 18th-century scientist Joseph Fenwick (Craig Spidle, as always powerful and multidimensional), who conducts the title experiment. With the help of Todd Rosenthal’s elegant set and Judith Lundberg’s artful costumes, the play bounces between the two centuries, unraveling a single mystery while demonstrating that bigger mysteries remain unsolvable.
The cast does good work, especially Ana Sferruzza as Isobel, the 18th-century servant who’s both victim and intended beneficiary of the scientists around her. If Jones had trusted Stephenson’s words–or, better, if he’d trusted the audience with her ideas–this could have been a thrilling instead of merely worthy effort.