SPRING GREEN, Wisc.—Seeing Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” produced by American Players Theatre, is like hoping for islands of sense to emerge from a sea of disparate facts, fields of study, and theories. And yet making order from chaos is pretty much what it’s about.
Is there an algorithm that will bring order to the chaos of so irregular and complex a thing as our relationships? What are our avenues for knowing anything? Stoppard dramatizes battling philosophies in his sometimes poetic, mostly comic, and always demanding work.
The play’s series of explications, attractions, and arguments on the nature of, well, just about everything, takes place around a long table studded with books at Sidley Park, an English country house in Derbyshire, in two distinct times. We time travel back and forth between the periods of 1809–1812 and 1993, until the final scene when the two eras commingle.
In 1809, 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly (Rebecca Hurd) is learning Latin and squirreling out of her suave tutor Septimus Hodge (Nate Burger) the definition of “carnal embrace.” Her curiosity about sex aside, Thomasina is no ordinary teen; so compelling is her intellect that she glimpses the premise of the Chaos Theory long before the theory emerged, and proposes to map iterated algorithms of a leaf simply because it stands to reason that if a simple shape like a circle can be mathematically defined, so can the irregular shapes of nature. Fractals, anyone?
Thomasina yearns to know the world and take in as much as her body and mind can fathom.
Thomasina’s lesson is interrupted by a Mr. Chater (Casey Hoekstra), a guest at the estate, who is impatient to challenge the man caught with his wife in a carnal embrace—Septimus.
Meanwhile, Thomasina’s mother Lady Croom (Tracy Michelle Arnold) bemoans the plans of her landscape gardener Richard Noakes (Gavin Lawrence) to turn her garden of neat hedges, fountains, and crisp-cut grass into a premeditated wilderness complete with a hermitage.
In 1993, the estate’s residents and guests are trying to figure out what actually happened to the residents and guests of the household those many years before.
Mirroring Lady Croom’s sensibility in the modern era is writer Hannah Jarvis (Colleen Madden). Hannah is staying at Sidley Park in order to research a new book on landscape gardening and how it demonstrates the shift from Classicism to Romanticism in the early 1800s. She prefers logic to the mess of feelings. At present she’s keen to discover who the hermit living on the estate might have been.
Don and literary critic Bernard Nightingale (Jim DeVita) is hunting for a story that fills in some unknowns in the life of Romantic poet Lord Byron. By hobbling together scraps of clues, letters, a literary review, and already known facts, Bernard believes Byron stayed at Sidley Park in 1809 and killed a Mr. Chater in a duel. Bernard is a bit more interested in the notoriety his research might bring than in proving its accuracy.
Mathematician Valentine Coventry (Steve Haggard), a descendant of Lady Croom, couldn’t care less about literary personalities or piecing together irrelevant history. He wants to further science. For him “the future is disorder” and it offers infinite possibilities for exploration and for contributing to knowledge. Yet when Hannah shows him the scribbles by Thomasina in her primer, he, too, gets involved in the mystery. Could this girl have somehow intuitively understood these theories?
Whether it’s the literary detective piecing together the past, a scientist using mathematics to predict the future, or simply a don Quixote enjoying the thrill of chasing theoretical windmills, these academic methods and motives are laid bare as Stoppard alternates between the two times periods to make clear their follies and limits.
We see the hilarious disparity between the truth of what happened in the past and that of present-day scholars stabbing at and sometimes hitting or sometimes missing the truth. Lord Byron (who never appears in the play) and the details of his life may be precious to scholars now, but in the past he was just a rotten house guest.
Between the discussions and the deductive reasoning, these people reach out through another way of knowing the world—through combustible interactions, and sensory experiences, not through the mind’s concoctions. They fight, they love, they live—in a real world with real things in it.
In these ways the past rhymes with the present. We share the same space as our forebears, handle the same books, and may even drink from the same glass. Duels, whether verbal or literal, ensue; writers of the past also endured criticism (although without the media hoopla). Couples dance then and now and embrace and the know the world.
Director and Arcadia Books owner James Bohnen does an admirable job to point out the rhyming and physicalize the scientific discussions. Bravo for this achievement. (In a discourse-driven play such as this, some words, some necessary words, are lost in the outdoor Hill Theatre, though.)
Nate Burger’s Septimus Hodge is appealing as a wordsmith, able to charm a lady and flatter an angry husband’s ego into submission. He is just as appealing when we see him come to understand that his pupil has surpassed him.
Rebecca Hurd wins our hearts as Thomasina—especially clear in the gasps when the audience learns her fate.
Tracy Michelle Arnold’s Lady Croom shows wisdom and grace, but also the superiority her rank demands and the sophistication it allows.
In the modern era, all make clear that the elegance of the past is long gone. This is especially true of Steve Haggard, who as Valentine Coverly seems a bit uncomfortable in his beard, earnest in his work, and low-key unless his passion for science is aroused.
His portrayal is at odds, literally, with the somewhat conniving and caddish Jim DeVita as Bernard Nightingale, who is more a showman than a scholar.
Colleen Madden’s level-headed Hannah Jarvis is certainly Nightingale’s match intellectually, but she wants to stay in the world of the mind, away from real interactions. Madden keeps Hannah very real and kind, actually, despite her avoiding all of the men attracted to her—that is, until she learns that relating to others is an important, irreplaceable way of knowing the world and joins the dance of life.
5950 Golf Course Rd.
Spring Green, Wisconsin
Tickets: 608-588-2361 or AmericanPlayers.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Oct. 1