“Tell me where is fancy bred, Or in the heart, or in the head?”
-William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Master playwright Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem at Quantum Theatre should move to the top of playgoers’ must-see shows list through November 19.
Cognitive vitality reverberates in spaces of the Energy Innovation Center where Quantum presents the second production of its 27th season. Artistic Director Karla Boos has again matched content to setting, creating another intriguing experience for her audience on the edge of the Hill District, overlooking Downtown Pittsburgh. A revived education and technical center, the venue is well matched for this regional debut. The views are a bonus, so jump in for a few dynamic hours with another top-notch Quantum ensemble, this time directed by rising American director Rachel M. Stevens.
In Stoppard’s tradition of intellectual plays like Arcadia, The Hard Problem (premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2015) awakens drowsy thought processes in another stellar Quantum production through this third Stoppard script for the company and one that any theater fan should see.
It’s notable that this Stoppard play has a strong woman at its core. Hilary operates in a workplace that may feel familiar as gender dynamics and competition plays out. Hilary Matthews, a bright young psychologist, is at the heart of the action. Her curiosity about her work and life choices arouse empathy for don’t we all ask the same kind of questions? She is lured to work at the leading Krohl Institute for Brain Science not only livelihood but the “the hard problem”: how do we justify consciousness if humans are truly composed of matter and chemical reactions. If there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness?
Alex Spieth is superbly engaging as Hilary who is nursing a private sorrow and a troubling question at work, where psychology and biology meet. She’s natural and open. We are never fearful for her–more apt to cheer her on. She prays and researches, ultimately asking if science and faith coexist? How does altruism coexist with egoism? What is stronger and which motivates an individual? Stoppard explores it all, so fasten your seatbelt for a ride through all those things that fill our brains with wonder, questions, and–dare we say it–emotion. You’ll take the questions from his adroit dialogue with you, just as Hillary does.
Hilary’s pursuit of the answers puts her at odds with her supervisors and mentor as she explores options in both research and relationships. Steven’s describes it as “the journey to find where our hearts live beyond our brain”, as she says she identifies with Hilary’s “twinkling optimism about the way the world functions.” This becomes the very source of Hilary’s challenges at work, as it inherently may be for many women.
Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s smart scenic design envelopes the audience. A cluttered, winding path loaded with the stuff of life, work, and attics lead to a three-quarters playing space. Our amassed consciousness is physicalized off stage while the stage area is a clean, crisp clinical setting enhanced by clever projected silhouette and formulas. Making one’s way to and from the theater playing area and banked seats, it’s impossible to avoid discarded objects like an antique adding machine, old lamps, and stacks of boxes filled with only God knows what.
On stage, lighting by Andrew Ostrowski and intriguing projections bring the mostly white and metal set elements to life. Pulsing shadows of the characters suggest the heartbeats and synergies of life. Projected code runs across on the floor at moments, adding to the movement and color that make the effects themselves something to ponder.
Stevens places every character on stage and within the audience from lights ups through final curtain, balancing the clinical setting with this reassuring touch. As actors watch from the edge of the action, their detached observation provides both a stronger connection both among the ensemble members and the audiences. Stevens guides each character’s journey through Stoppard’s rich dialogue, their motivations resonating within this exciting new venue and into a greater societal context.
Spike is Hilary’s tutor and lover. They mess around and talk a lot about Hilary’s work and the workplace politics. While Spike catches her praying at bedtime, their disagreement about the existence of God sheds some light on Hilary’s faith. She admits she’s praying for a miracle.
As Spike, Andrew William Smith displays an appealing versatility in his second Quantum appearance. He’s sweetly supportive as a charming lover who throws on Hilary’s robe, but progresses to tipsy cad at work celebrations. He’s passionate about Hilary on several levels but grows jealous of her success.
Ken Bolden is Leo, burdened with hiring, supervision, along with his research. He brings Hilary and tries to look out for her even though some research missteps. Bolden delivers another substantive and thoughtful Quantum performance, revealing that Leo has a bigger heart than his first scene might suggest.
Vinny Anand’s Amal is a super smart and well-off yuppie careerist who breaks into the institute in spite of Leo’s thoughtless job interview in the men’s room. He’s fairly ruthless and pays dearly when Jerry calls him on unethical behavior.
Co-workers Julia and Ursula are a couple, providing a rare glimpse of domestic stability and loyalty. Daina Michelle Griffith returns to Quantum as Ursula with a strong and nuanced performance. As onsite Pilates instructor Julia, Fredi Bernstein, injects physical energy to balances all that thinking especially when Hilary join her for a workout and shares a secret.
As the talented young researcher Bo, Claire Hsu draws a strong portrait of an ambitious team member who has a lot to learn.
Randy Kovitz as the institute’s head Jerry operates fiercely in support of his business and personal success while he has a softer scene with his young daughter Cathy, portrayed by Grace Vensel, a 7th-grade student at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School. She’s already a pro. Her focused and thoughtful performance is lovely as she observes, questions, and mirrors Hilary’s curious smarts.
At the play’s end, a resilient and hopeful Hilary exits through that lighted pathway of clutter. Then the audience follows. And we think her miracle may indeed happen.
Read more about director Rachel M. Stevens in our pre-production interview. You might want to visit the Energy Innovation Center online or just be surprised when you arrive at 1435 Bedford Avenue, Pittsburgh (15219) where this is ample free parking in the Center’s lot.
The Hard Problem runs through November 19, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm. For details on plays, venues, special events, and tickets, visit Quantum Theatre at quantumtheatre.com