English artist Joseph Wright unveiled his painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump in 1768. The realistic, melodramatic oil can still chill a spine more than two hundred years later. In the picture, a family gathers by the light of an oil lamp to watch as a white dove in a glass bowl is sacrificed in the name of science. The experimenter looks possessed, the children are distraught, the event smacks of sadism, and the question is raised: Will science be a force for good or evil? Wright’s painting inspired contemporary English playwright Shelagh Stephenson (author of The Memory of Water), to write An Experiment With an Air Pump, a dark comedy about genetic engineering and a family secret that begins in Wright’s time and jumps to 1999. It runs through November 5 at Northlight Theatre. Peggy Dunne and Craig Spidle lead the cast, directed by Northlight artistic director B.J. Jones. Preview performances are tonight, Saturday, and Tuesday at 8, and Sunday at 3 and 7, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie. Preview tickets are $30 to $34. Tickets for the regular run, which begins Wednesday, October 4, are $32 to $45. There’s a pay-what-you-can performance at 3 on Saturday, October 7. Call 847-673-6300 for tickets and times.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.