Palm Beach Dramaworks presents Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece “Arcadia,” which earned the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play when it was first performed in 1993, from March 31 through April 30.
In “Arcadia,” Stoppard celebrates the love of learning, dealing with weighty matters of natural science and mathematics as well as affairs of the heart, all presented with farcical humor. The action takes place in the English country house of Sidley Park, alternating between early 19th and late 20th centuries. The 20th century characters are trying to unravel what happened to their counterparts nearly 200 years before.
The two timelines allow Stoppard to deal with the sweeping changes in knowledge, as classical yields to romanticism and order to disorder. Stoppard’s inventive use of language makes “Arcadia” a tour de force.
“Arcadia” is under the expert direction of J. Barry Lewis. After directing 200 plays, this is his first Stoppard play, one he has looked forward to. Lewis prides himself on being a “traditionalist as a director, finding the author’s voice and using that as a guide for the cast to arrive at a collective discovery.”
“What does the playwright want you to walk away with,” asks Lewis. In “Arcadia,” his take is love and the unpredictability of love.
“It’s about exploring the personalities in the work and clarifying their relationships,” says Lewis. “Stoppard’s language is his sword and shield and he uses language as the greatest hurdle. In this regard, the play demands a great deal of the audience.”
The 19th century part of the play revolves around Thomasina Coverly, played by Caitlin Cohn in her Dramaworks debut. She portrays a brilliant 13-year-old mathematics student who is perplexed by the sexual dalliances she observes around her.
Her tutor is Septimus Hodge, played by Ryan Zachary Ward, also making his Dramaworks debut. Hodge is challenged and captivated by Thomasina, becoming more drawn to her as the play evolves.
Their joint pursuit of math and physics is paralleled by the symbolic transformation of the estate’s garden from a stately classical arrangement into a gothic forest. This transformation is tolerated by the imperious Lady Croom, the estate’s matriarch and Thomasina’s mother, played by Dramaworks veteran Margery Lowe.
“Croom clearly represents the aristocracy and enjoys flirtatious dalliances with many men in the play,” says Lowe. “She is middle aged and her husband neglects her, but also the contemporary characters are neglecting her importance in the 19th century mix. She is a strong woman given the time period. Today, she’d be CEO of a company!”
Vanessa Morosco plays Hannah Jarvis, part of the 20th century ensemble who is researching “the hermit of Sidley Park.” Her rival and sometimes collaborator is Bernard Nightingale, played by Peter Simon Hilton, a don trying to prove that poet Lord Byron had been in a duel with one of the characters of the 19th century, Ezra Chater.
Hilton and Morosco are husband and wife actors who have performed many times together. They are reminded of their previous roles of two similarly obstinate characters, Beatrice and Benedick, in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”
They agree that Stoppard is a modern-day Shakespeare with his use of language.
“Both playwrights provide great language to use so you not only see the play but hear the play,” notes Hilton.
They see Hannah and Bernard as “quirky yet passionate, unique in their own ways, very intellectual, but the kind of guests you’d like to have at your next dinner party. They use language and wit for what they need.”
Gary Cadwallader, Dramaworks’ director of Education and Community Engagement, plays Captain Brice, who Cadwallader describes as “an agent of stasis whereas so much of the play is about change.”
Other characters round out the jigsaw puzzle of the play, and when all pieces are fit together one gets the sense that the whole is greater than the parts, zooming out to clearly see the march of humanity.
Be prepared to be dazzled by Brian O’Keefe’s costume designs, some 40 in all.
“From a costume design point of view it’s really two plays,” says O’Keefe. “The 19th century portion is clearly the Regency costumes of the time. These had to be created while the 20th century dress had to be shopped for.”
This attention to detail, including design, lighting and props, is something at which Dramaworks excels.
Stoppard adroitly resolves the mysteries, the loves and even the sciences at the conclusion, making this one of the most satisfying intellectual comedies of the 20th century.
Palm Beach Dramaworks is at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Pictured above: Caitlin Cohn and Ryan Zachary Ward rehearsing “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll.