THE HARD PROBLEM (Wilma): Stoppard makes intelligible intelligence look easy

Sarah Gilko and Ross Beschler in THE HARD PROBLEM. Photo By Alexander Iziliaev

Sarah Gilko and Ross Beschler in THE HARD PROBLEM. Photo By Alexander Iziliaev

In THE HARD PROBLEM, getting its U.S. premiere at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, Tom Stoppard demonstrates his uncanny ability to make dense philosophical discussions intelligible and dramatically sensible. His first new play in a decade falls well short of his finest work (though what living playwright has approached the dizzying heights of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Arcadia?), but once again impresses with plot and action that comments on and distills the philosophical concepts under consideration. 

As the play opens, smart but inexperienced psychology student Hilary Matthews (Sarah Gilko) debates altruism with Spike (Ross Beschler), a professor attempting “an abuse of trust unprecedented in the history of higher education”. Hilary’s belief in god and goodwill confounds Spike (“don’t use the word good as if it meant something”) and he warns her to play it down in her interview for a job at major neurological institute founded by hedge fund manager Jerry Krohl (Steven Rishard).

Hillary gets the job because research director Leo (Lindsay Smalling) agrees with her that science cannot fully explain consciousness. Here and throughout the play, selflessness and self-interest collide in an elegant intersection of words and action. Stoppard’s intelligence and skill stimulate our mind, but he strains to wring emotion from the lengthy scientific discourses and a well-telegraphed plot. “What’s a coincidence?” asks Krohl’s twelve-year-old daughter Cathy (Gaby Bradbury), who shares a name and age with the child Hilary gave up for adoption. Are these characters or vehicles for ideas?

If we take them as the latter, A HARD PROBLEM succeeds under Blank Zizka’s clean, intelligible direction on set designer Matt Saunder’s sparse, uncluttered stage.

The Wilma Theater just announced a mostly-already-collected $10 million fund which will (among other things) provide for a ten-member core company trained in the Wilma’s artistic aesthetic. Though ambiguous, the essentials of this vision include a focus on physical movement and collaboratively devised theater—characteristics which might seem particularly ill-suited to Stoppard’s cerebral verbosity.

Last season’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the accompanying production of Hamlet, were laden with distractingly affected physicality. But in A HARD PROBLEM, Zizka’s attention to choreography enriches the conversations and interactions. These may be eloquent vessels rather than fully formed emotional beings, but they engage in a lovely dance of words and body—an interplay perfectly complemented by the Wilma’s unusual en face seating arrangement.

Gilko shows an understanding and joy in Stoppard’s clever dialog and maintains fine interactions with each of the strong supporting cast, including DC actor Sharvan Amin and Wilma stalwart Krista Apple-Hodge. However, each actor is guilty of focusing too much on the lilt of their poorly rendered English accents rather than the emotional tone of key lines—a sin which Stoppard’s emotionally challenged work could ill afford

My ears are unforgiving, so it’s likely most playgoers won’t have the same problem with THE HARD PROBLEM. They can instead focus on the richness of Stoppard’s words and the delightful interludes of live saxophone (Michael Pedicin).

[The Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street] January 6-February 6, 2016; 2015; wilmatheater.org.

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Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.