“Heat goes to cold. It’s a one-way street. Your tea will end up at room temperature. What’s happening to your tea is happening to everything, everywhere. The sun and the stars. It’ll take a while but eventually we’re all going to end up at room temperature.”—Tom Stoppard, ARCADIA.
It’s called the heat death of the universe. According to the second law of thermodynamics, one day, a long time from now (as many years away as there are atoms in the universe), all particles in existence will be spread out across the cosmos at a temperature approaching absolute zero. Time will have ended, the energy of all matter dissipated. With that fact, all endeavors—science, literature—are “trivial”, as a character in Tom Stoppard’s ARCADIA remarks. Another responds: “A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need.” And as Stoppard makes clear in this brightly intelligent yet deeply human masterpiece, a great play is always timely and needed too.
Arcadia unfolds over two time periods. Opening in the drawing room of a large English estate in 1809, we find a tutor, Septimus (Maxwell Eddy), a friend of the poet Lord Byron, guiding the preciously intelligent daughter of the manor, Tomasina (Alex Boyle), in mathematics. Switching to a modern time in the same room (set design by Meghan Jones), an arrogant Byron academic, Bernard (Joe Guzmán), and a writer of historical fiction, Hannah (Kittson O’Neill), argue as they try to piece together the events of the house two centuries earlier.
Stoppard’s genius—and considering ARCADIA the word is justified—is to permeate his play with deep philosophical contemplation—on scientific inquiry, on literature and poetry, on Romanticism versus Rationalism as expressed through 19th century British gardening techniques—while using the play to explore those same issues. The second law of themodynamics (much discussed in ARCADIA) dictates that time is linear: the nature of heat exchanges means “it won’t work backwards”. Stoppard fuses his two periods, books left on the table stay there in another, a remark in one finds a mirror in another. Characters across centuries inhabit the same space as they discuss the nature of time.
Under the direction of Kathryn MacMillan, the production at the Lantern may miss a few notes (several first act scenes end with a whimper, the male-female chemistry between Septimus and Tomasina and between Bernard and Hannah is lacking, robbing the play of some pathos), but these are flats on a superbly in-tune symphony. The play stays grounded not in ideas but in personalities—not just the lead eccentrics but a twelve-strong cast of vibrant characters, from the pompous cuckold Chater (Bradley K. Wrenn), to the prim lady of the house Lady Croom (Charlotte Northeast). The play demands much of its cast, and MacMillan pays attention to even the smallest roles, bringing life and wit to the brainy language.
The Lantern’s ARCADIA is a hugely entertaining production, funny and smart, well acted across the board. This is one of the first productions of the 2014/15 season, but there won’t be many better shows in Philadelphia this year. [Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Church, 10th and Ludlow streets] September 25-November 9, 2014; lanterntheater.org.
- Phindie writer Kathryn Osenlund’s review for CurtainUp.