Theater

The Gamm’s Arcadia Is a Modern Masterpiece

arcadiaThere’s a lot going on in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, currently opening the season at The Gamm. A viewer unfamiliar with the play might expect the poetry or the landscape design history from a story set in a country house in the early 19th century, but they might not expect it to contain quite so much about chaos theory or thermodynamics. Somehow it all works.

Stoppard, in characteristic fashion, combines all these ideas by putting them in the mouths of very smart people. Grace Viveiros, as mathematical prodigy Thomasina Coverly, walks the difficult line of playing young (13) without feeling false to the character’s personality; enjoyable in flights of whimsy, she’s nonetheless at her best in Thomasina’s serious moments, when she strives to explain her ideas about mathematics and physics to her tutor even though the terms and equations she needs haven’t been invented yet. Jeff Church, as Thomasina’s tutor Septimus Hodge, is perfectly cast and handles both his scenes teaching (and learning from) his pupil, and outwitting other members of the household, with ease.

Juxtaposed with the 19th-century scholars are two present-day academics delving into the history of the house’s inhabitants. Tony Estrella, as the blustering Bernard Nightingale, and Jeanine Kane, as the quiet, practical Hannah Jarvis, benefit greatly from their long history on stage together. Bernard and Hannah are more alike than they can admit, and Estrella and Kane both bring a lot of nuance to their roles as well as a great deal of non-romantic chemistry. Kane shows us the passion and occasional blind faith of a scholar who prides herself on rationality, and Estrella lets us see Bernard’s knowledge of and genuine admiration for the works of his subject Lord Byron, in a role that could easily become pure caricature. I found Bernard’s impromptu declamation of “She walks in beauty” (matched by Hannah’s of another poem later on) particularly sincere and effective.

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The cast as a whole is very strong, despite inconsistencies in the accent work that were quite surprising for a company of The Gamm’s caliber. Besides the four leads, the production also benefits from solid acting in the smaller roles; a stand-out was Brandon Whitehead’s hapless Mr. Chater, all the funnier for being played dead straight and as sympathetically as possible. Unfortunately, Jesse Hinson and Deb Martin, in the two important supporting roles of Valentine Coverly (present-day) and Lady Croom (past), appear to have wandered in from different plays entirely — Hinson from some non-Stoppard work where people are sullen about knowledge instead of enthusiastic, and Martin from a panto or Monty Python.

In a play whose central dilemma is the tension between reason and feeling, expressed in many forms — the classical garden of meadows and lakes versus the “irregular” or “picturesque” garden of rocks and ruins, the researcher’s evidence versus hunch, order versus chaos in the universe — director Fred Sullivan leans toward reason. He has wisely, in my opinion, focused on the passion for knowledge rather than on the potential for romantic intrigue between characters in the modern-day scenes, and soft-pedaled the romance in the 19th-century scenes in a way that lets it develop subtly from the characters’ intellectual connection. The set, unlike most of the production, owes more to the “irregular” than the balanced. I can understand the urge to distinguish The Gamm’s production from every other production that has a big table at center stage, but the asymmetric placement of a small table at one edge instead leads to a number of awkward and forced moments in the staging.

I have to put in a few words for the play itself. It is, as Sullivan writes in his director’s note, a “modern masterpiece,” beautifully constructed, funny and devastatingly sad. The performances of the central quartet, and Sullivan’s insight into the play’s themes, more than make up for the production’s shortcomings. It’s been extended through October 23, so take advantage of the opportunity to catch it!

Arcadia runs through Oct 23 at The Gamm Theatre at 172 Exchange St in Pawtucket.

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