Art and science come together in Civic Theatre’s production of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia"
Melissa Freilich loves Tom Stoppard’s plays.
“Tom Stoppard always asks you to think and feel as well,” she said.
Freilich is directing the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s production of Stoppard’s Arcadia, opening April 19 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.
It’s a play that combines entertainment with thought-provoking discussions of everything from poetry and mathematics to thermodynamics.
“There is this feeling of discovery about the play, and every moment you get the sense of an epiphany and you, say, ‘Oh, now I get it,’ and it’s so delightful,” she said. “And the play is so carefully structured that even if you don’t know about those topics coming in, no matter what you know, you get those moments of understanding. I think that is so wonderful and it makes it entertaining in the smartest way. It makes you want to know more.”
Arcadia is set in a simple study room off the garden of a Derbyshire country estate in two different time periods, the early 1800s and the “present day.”
In 1809, Thomasina Coverly is a precocious 13-year-old, a girl on the verge of becoming a woman. She is eager to learn everything from Latin poetry to thermodynamics. She is constantly questioning her young tutor Septimus Hodge and isn’t always happy with his answers. Their friendly and funny banter suggest Arcadia will be the kind of comedy of manners popular in the 1800s, but it is much more than that.
In the present day, writer Hannah Jarvis has taken up temporary residence in the manor house, where the Coverly family descendants still live. She is doing research on the landscape of the estate’s Sidley Park garden and the report that a hermit lived there in the early 1800s. Bernard Nightingale, a scholar in the literature of the Romantic age, comes to Sidley to hunt down evidence to support a claim that Lord Byron may have killed a man in a duel at the estate. The two academics clash on their very different approaches to research, but as their research begins to merge, they join in trying to solve long hidden mysteries of a famous poet, a gifted girl, and a mysterious hermit.
Stoppard’s play shows what happened on the weekend of the reported duel and what researchers think happened.
“It’s all one play, but they have a different storyline and they almost make sense independently,” Freilich said. “They are fun independent stories, but when you bring them together and set them against each other, you are thinking so much more. A couple of things change with the times. The movement is different, mannerisms are different, and the way people behave is different. For example, the first scene reminds me of The Importance of Being Earnest, the people are very clever, and in the present day scenes they remind me of some very contemporary works like Oslo and Heisenberg, where it’s very personal about these people and what they’re doing.”
Laura Lilly Cotten plays Thomasina as a 13-year-old and then later as a 16-year-old on the eve of her 17th birthday. Thomasina is more than just bright: “She’s a genius,” Cotten said. "She loves calculus and drawing and figuring things out. And she kind of flirts around with big ideas. She discovers the Second Law of Thermodynamics before anyone else. She’s fun to play because her mind is very quick and it moves from one idea to another.”
She spars with Septimus but is also attracted to her young tutor, a friend of Lord Byron. Chris Grimm, who plays Septimus, said the character develops an understanding as he learns from his pupil.
“He’s a contemporary of Lord Byron, a literary type. He’s the kind of person who’s very smart and likes to show off the fact that he’s so much smarter than everyone else, to the point where he tells jokes that nobody else picks up on,” Grimm said. “There is an arrogance, too, in that way. As the play goes along, that gets chipped away as we learn that Thomasina is the great genius all along.”
Cotten said Thomasina learns from her tutor even as she outgrows him intellectually,
“She is very shrewd,” Cotten said. “By the end of the play she is ahead of him in some ways. She understands thermodynamics better than he does and she has mathematics that he can’t grasp. And, yet, socially he is more adept. They are also funny together.”
A gift for mathematics and a curse of social awkwardness continues in the present day Coverlys. Russ Schwartz plays Valentine Coverly, who has a passion for mathematics and for Hannah.
“He comes from a family of researchers and becomes a researcher himself,” Schwartz said. “He becomes caught up in it. He finds that the math he’s doing is tied up in the family history that these historians are studying.”
Schwartz said the relationship with the older Hannah is “always on the edge of a joke.”
Kate Umstatter, who plays Hannah, said her character is a curious person who “wants to know things.”
“She’s a stickler for the truth and honesty in everything she does and she won’t rest until she finds the artifact that shows something to be true,” Umstatter said.
Hannah spars with Bernard but respects him.
Umstatter said Hannah likes Valentine and enjoys watching his self-confidence as a scholar grow.
“They have a more quiet understanding of each other, rather than the back and forth she has with Bernard,” Umstatter said.
Freilich said the staging of Arcadia presents challenges for her and her cast. Scenes move from one time period to the other quickly. The room is the same and even some props are the same, including a large tortoise.
“We have to make it clear what’s going on,” Freilich said, “Mostly, that’s the costumes. They’re always in the same of a manor house, but it’s always clear when someone is in 1809 versus someone in the present day. They are often dealing with the same objects, which is delightful. Someone putting down a glass and someone from a different time period picking it up, you have to imagine it’s a new glass even though it’s exactly the same. You enjoy how the play really makes sense about time, but it also plays with it. There’s a tortoise on stage, so two people have a pet tortoise in two different eras.”
At the end of the play, things get more complicated as scenes overlap between the two time periods.
“When there are so many characters on stage and so many props on stage it can be confusing and hard to focus on the characters from the 1809 and 1812 cast,” said Cotten.
But the cast agrees that the final merging of the eras is theater magic.
“I hope the audience is able to marvel with us at the genius of the play as we go through. It’s wonderful to discover these elements that Stoppard has built into the show and I hope they are moved by the story,” said Grimm. “It overlaps in such a wonderful way at the end. I’m jealous that I have to be in it rather than watching it unwind.”
The tortoise on stage will not be a real tortoise, but Freilich worked with the University of Michigan Natural History Museum to create a tortoise that won’t wander off. The museum will have a special exhibit at the Sunday night performance of items related to the play’s themes. Local bookstores will exhibit books mentioned in the play and the University of Michigan’s Special Collection Library will exhibit early editions of books related to the period of the play on Saturday night. The Civic is also working with the Ann Arbor Garden Club to bring more people into the theater.
Stoppard suggests that there is a natural bridge between the arts and sciences and the natural curiosity that motivates both.
“It’s a play about wanting to know and what comes from that,” said Umstatter. “My character has a line that it’s the wanting-to-know that matters. You see the joy in knowledge from the play.”
Schwartz said he hopes one thing the audience takes away is the idea that poetry and math are not opposites and that both make our lives more interesting.
“They’re not just some rules or subjects in school but our way of understanding everything,” he said.
Other cast members are Brittany Batell, Elijah Hatcher-Kay, Greg Kovas, Theo Polley, Sara Rose, Rob Roy, Elizabeth Wagner, and David Widmayer.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” will be presented at 7:30 pm Thursday, April 19, 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, April 20-21, and 2 pm on Sunday, April 22, at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the north campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets, visit a2ct.org or call 734-971-2228.