There were two grand openings at Glencoe’s Writers Theatre on Wednesday night, and they were ideally intertwined.
First, the widely acclaimed company — founded in 1992, and initially housed in the 60-seat “back of a bookstore” — celebrated its first opening night in its new home, an elegant, state-of-the-art complex designed by Chicago architect Jeanne Gang.
When: Through May 1
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court
Tickets: $35 – $80
Run time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission
The change of scale (even from Writers’ more recent 108-seat mainstage in the Glencoe Women’s Library Club, on whose footprint this new structure stands), is stunning, if still a bit disconcerting to those who thrived on the intimacy of its earlier homes. But it also is an undeniably immense accomplishment. And sitting in the warmly modern 255-seat, thrust-style mainstage space (the flexible studio will have its initial tryout soon), the potential for both greater spectacle and continued directness is immediately apparent.
As for director Michael Halberstam’s choice of Tom Stoppard’s play, “Arcadia,” as the company’s opening salvo, it could not have been more ideal for many reasons. Not only is it a dazzling showcase for some of Writers’ most beloved performers from seasons past, but in its mix of complex ideas, sparkling wit and verbal acrobatics it is emblematic of what this company has always done best. Even more to the point, the many themes in Stoppard’s bristlingly brainy work seem custom-made for this particular moment in Writers’ history.
And just what is “Arcadia” all about? As it happens, it is far easier to list everything the play deals with than to outline its century-spanning plot. In the broadest sense it is about change, as well as what remains the same in the human heart and imagination over time, with Stoppard musing on the enduring complications of love and sex; on the tension between art and science; on the way landscape design reflects the particular emotional and intellectual spirit of a given era; on how history can be a very dodgy thing to attempt to reconstruct; and on the way the accomplishments of women have (and continue to be) subverted. For lovers of higher mathematics and physics, it also is a look at the ideas of the brilliant Pierre de Fermat, the 17th century genius credited with the early development of infinitesimal calculus. And that is just for starters. I have seen “Arcadia” at least five times since its London debut in 1993, and I admit I must still pay intense concentration in order to follow much of what it is being said.
In the story that unfolds between 1809 and 1812, we meet Thomasina Coverly (the winningly natural Elizabeth Stenholt), a 13-year-old girl with more than a touch of genius who is being tutored by Septimus Hodge (the ever sophisticated Greg Matthew Anderson), a handsome young Trinity graduate and acquaintance of the great Romantic poet, Byron. Hodge engages in “carnal embrace” with the wife of a visiting second-rate poet, Ezra Chater (Rod Thomas, a master of the ridiculous), but he also seems to be in love with Thomasina’s mother, Lady Croom (the fetching Chaon Cross), and, though he exercises restraint, with Thomasina, too. (Set designer Collette Pollard has crafted a beautiful neo-classical interior for the Coverly estate, with a circular design – and walls overlaid with projections of a garden – that echoes the curves of the new theater itself.)
Flash-forward to modern times, as two writers — the meticulous, alluringly withholding Hannah Jarvis (Kate Fry, a simply peerless Stoppardian soul-mate), and the pretentious academic, Bernard Nightingale (the knife-sharp Scott Parkinson) — compete to unearth the secrets of just what happened at the Sidley Park estate two centuries earlier. The modern-day Coverlys are complicated in their own way, with Valentine (a most touching Christopher Sheard), and his mute younger brother, Gus (deft silent comedy by Alistair Sewell), both smitten with Hannah, and with their hot-to-trot sister, Chloe (sassily contemporary Callie Johnson), luring Nightingale, who also is taken with Hannah.
Precisely what happened with Byron, Hodge and Chater is one of the questions to be answered. The shift at Sidley Park from a classical-style retreat to a Romantic landscape complete with ruins is another concern. But what upends all this chatter is the more stunningly cosmic view of Thomasina, whose insights on universal patterns are recognized by Hodge, and much later by Valentine, who understands he has the advantage of exponentially speeded up computer calculations that Thomasina could only dream about.
As Hannah proclaims, it is “the wanting to know” that makes us matter at all. And Thomasina matters. She might have been every bit as famous as Newton or Fermat or even Einstein, but Stoppard brings her story to a tragic end just before her 17th birthday. Happily, before she is gone she gets to be kissed and learns how to waltz. And her history will be uncovered.
Among the things Thomasina left behind were sketches that illustrated “the irreversibility of heat.” Stoppard’s play might just prove her wrong on that count. His “Arcadia” continues to generate plenty of it.