Fans of British playwright Tom Stoppard know to wear their thinking caps when they attend his plays. Fans of 1993's dizzying, dazzling "Arcadia" know to fasten them snugly.
Brimming with knotty ideas and droll dialogue, this consummately crafted dramedy embraces grand themes: the pursuit of knowledge, the clash of reason and emotion, the conflict between art and science, and the nature of love and sexual attraction.
"Arcadia"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through May 1
Running time: About three hours, with intermission
Parking: Nearby street parking
Heady stuff indeed. And it's impeccably executed by Writers Theatre in Glencoe, whose lovely revival helmed by artistic director Michael Halberstam inaugurates its artful, impressive new space. The theater feels both new and comfortably familiar. That's also true of "Arcadia," which -- like "Hamlet" and "Ragtime" -- is a play that I find reveals more of itself to me each time I see it.
Set in the library of Sidley Park, the Coverly family's English country estate, the action "shuttles back and forth between the early 19th century and the present day, always in this same room," according to Stoppard's stage direction. The play opens with a question about the definition of "carnal embrace." It concludes, rather sweetly, with a waltz.
In between, characters discuss mathematics, poetry, landscape architecture and sex. They debate the merits of science and reason versus those of imagination and emotion. They fall in love. They quarrel. They search for answers that will unlock the secrets of the universe and the mysteries of the human heart.
Halberstam's production is fleet (as fleet as a three-hour show can be), funny (as any Stoppard play I've seen) and affectionate. There's real warmth in the performances of this excellent cast, more than half of them Writers' newcomers.
Among them is the winsome Elizabeth Stenholt of Des Plaines, who plays 13-year-old budding genius Thomasina Coverly with the right amount of precociousness. The play opens in 1809 with Thomasina studying with her tutor Septimus Hodge, who is nearly as brilliant as his pupil and is played with droll reserve by Hoffman Estates native Greg Matthew Anderson.
Septimus has recently enjoyed a carnal embrace with the unseen Mrs. Chater, the promiscuous wife of fatuous wannabe poet Ezra (Rod Thomas), who challenges Septimus to a duel. In reality, Septimus' affections lie with Thomasina's mother Lady Croom (Chaon Cross), who is upset about Richard Noakes' (Gabriel Ruiz) unwelcome renovations to the estate's classically inspired grounds. She is also distracted by Septimus' university chum, the unseen Lord Byron. He is a guest at the estate and apparently irresistible to all females who reside there.
The time then shifts to the present where rival authors Hannah Jarvis (the ever-intelligent Kate Fry) and Bernard Nightingale (the perceptive, deliciously sly Scott Parkinson) pursue their own interests. Hannah, an intellectual with a disdain for romance, is doing research on a hermit who lived on the estate for her book on "the breakdown of the Romantic imagination." Bernard, a literature professor with a taste for the limelight, is investigating Byron, who Bernard believes fought a fatal duel at Sidley Park in 1809.
Postdoctoral student Valentine Coverly (Christopher Sheard), another family genius, attempts to unravel Thomasina's old notes and theorems, which seemingly presage modern math and physics. Meanwhile, Valentine's sister Chloe (Callie Johnson) pursues Bernard while their mute younger brother Gus (Alistair Sewell) pines after Hannah.
The dual tales, separated by a couple of centuries, unfold under designer Collette Pollard's neoclassical dome and against a backdrop that superimposes the estate's gardens onto the library's walls. Bringing the outside in, so to speak.
While Stoppard's 19th-century characters struggle to divine the future, their modern-day counterparts seek to uncover the past.
"It's wanting to know that makes us matter," observes Hannah. "Otherwise we're going out the way we came in."
That's the point of course. Every one of Stoppard's characters seeks knowledge: of the universe, of themselves and of the human heart, which may be the most unfathomable mystery of them all.