Jessica John and Francis Gercke in "An Experiment With An Air Pump." Photo by Daren Scott
Ruminative and penetrating, British playwright Shelagh Stephenson’s “An Experiment With An Air Pump” is about intersections: The intersection of science and the humanities. The intersection of soul and intellect. The intersection of turns of the century 200 years apart and a dark mystery that binds them.
Prior to the opening of Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company’s staging of “An Experiment With An Air Pump” Saturday night, patrons were encouraged to “sit forward” rather than back to enjoy the production. Sound advice, as it turns out. This is an immersing, edge-of-one’s seat play populated in both its time periods (1799 and 1999) by richly realized characters that inspire strong emotional reactions.
Deftly directed by Richard Baird and featuring a superb cast of seven, “An Experiment With An Air Pump” is the most impressive production in the four-year history of Backyard Renaissance, which is the 2018-2019 resident theater company at La Jolla Playhouse.
An homage to Tom Stoppard’s time-shifting “Arcadia,” Stephenson’s late-‘90s play was also inspired by a 1768 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby titled “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump.” A copy of the painting on stage in the Playhouse’s Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre comes to dramatic life at the opening of the play, followed by a brief monologue likening those portrayed on the canvas to the inhabitants of a home in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in 1799.
Joseph Fenwick (Robert Smyth) is a fiercely committed scientist and anti-monarchist whose passions no longer extend to wife Susannah (Susan Angelo). Her unhappiness has turned to drink and to verbal barbs within a household occupied by the Fenwick’s excitable daughters (Caroline Keeler and Olivia Cordell), a hunchbacked Scottish maid, Isobel (Jessica John) and two physicians, Roget (Justin Lang) and Armstrong (Francis Gercke).
Two hundred years later in the same house, which is under renovation prior to being sold, scientist Ellen (Angelo) has been offered a position doing pre-embryonic research for a fellow geneticist (Keeler). The ethical considerations involved are troubling to Ellen’s English professor spouse (Smyth), who has lost his position but not his convictions. This moral quandary mirrors one debated back in 1799: whether to use bodies robbed from graves to do research.
Transcending the 200 years is an untimely death and the discovery at the house of skeletal remains. Hidden in this connection is a heartbreaking subplot manifested in a beautifully poignant performance by John and a terrifying one by Gercke, Backyard Renaissance’s executive director and artistic director, respectively.
Smyth, artistic director at Lamb’s Players Theatre, brings presence and gravitas to both his roles, and his interplay with Angelo, especially in a fervent confrontation over Fenwick’s and Susannah’s fractured relationship, is absorbing.
“An Experiment With An Air Pump” is fairly bulging with questions of ethical principles, gender roles and what best informs inquiry of a universe that confounds men and women across the expanse of time. Yet with all these ponderous and paramount questions at the fore, it echoes in this compelling production the sometimes-uneasy beat of the human heart.
(Review originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune on 8/13/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.