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Review: Geniuses get real in Palm Beach Dramaworks' 'Arcadia'

Correspondent

In its 17 seasons, Palm Beach Dramaworks has stayed true to its mission of providing audiences with “provocative and timeless productions” of what it calls “theater to think about.”

That description of the company’s focus is particularly apt in the case of its latest effort, a production of Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play “Arcadia.”

Intellectually, emotionally and dramatically engaging, “Arcadia” takes place in a single location, a garden-view room at Sidley Park, a grand English country estate in Derbyshire. The play’s action, however, flows back and forth from 1809 to the present, until a final scene allows the 19th century characters and the contemporary ones to occupy the same space, each group unaware of the other.

The Czechoslovakia-born Stoppard, long counted among the most brilliant of British playwrights, has loaded this script (which has a running time of more than three hours) with a host of scientific, mathematical, historical and artistic references or concepts. Intrepid theatergoers will encounter Fermat’s Last Theorem, the second law of thermodynamics, chaos theory, the romantic misbehavior of Lord Byron, computer algorithms and classicism versus romanticism in landscape architecture — just to name a few of the subjects Stoppard weaves into the fabric of the play.

Yet “Arcadia” is not a frustratingly difficult theatrical experience. At times, its wit is laugh-out-loud funny. Its characters are curious, lustful, precocious and pompous. Stoppard has concocted a hell of a story, one that embraces passion, mystery and tragedy.

The centuries-hopping tale unfolds on an elegant, stark, white set by Anne Mundell. She incorporates multiple oval shapes (even in the large table that dominates the room) into the period-evoking space, and in lieu of a visible garden has a tangled white tree climbing one wall.

Color enters this Sidley Park in the form of Stoppard’s vibrant characters and Brian O’Keefe’s beautiful costumes, as well as the time-establishing lighting design by Don Thomas (his roseate dawn is particularly lovely). Steve Shapiro deepens the unseen country atmosphere, providing the sounds of singing birds, barking dogs and guns fired at game (or romantic rivals), as well as starkly different piano pieces separated by two centuries.

Director J. Barry Lewis has assembled a cast of regional theater veterans and South Florida-based actors, blending his performers into a most impressive company.

Caitlin Cohn, who is in fact an adult (as well as an impressively experienced actor), is utterly convincing as 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly, a math-science prodigy who asks her tutor such questions as, “Do you think God is a Newtonian?” Cohn conveys Thomasina’s brilliance, at the same time underscoring that this 19th century teen is playful and romantically imaginative. Her British-accented pronunciation of Thomasina’s dense dialogue, however, is sometimes difficult to decipher.

As her dashing tutor Septimus Hodge, Ryan Zachary Ward plays a scholar with a lusty side and a wit quick enough to extricate himself from the wrath of a cuckolded husband. The evolution of his relationship with Thomasina over several years, from nurturer of genius to the precipice of something deeper, is genuinely moving.

Also at Sidley Park in the 19th century are Thomasina’s mother, Lady Croom, played by Margery Lowe with a grandeur that is the inverse of her petite stature (and it must be noted that, with her red hair, Lowe looks particularly striking in the color palette of O’Keefe’s designs); the adroit and extremely funny Cliff Burgess as Ezra Chater, a not-very-good poet vulnerable to flattery and betrayal; Gary Cadwallader as Lady Croom’s opinionated brother, Captain Brice; James Andreassi as landscape architect (and frequent target of Lady Croom’s complaints) Richard Noakes; Casey Butler as Thomasina’s younger brother Augustus; and Dan Leonard as the servant Jellaby, bearer of messages that will, one day, be subject to misinterpretation.

Three Coverly descendants — Valentine (Britt Michael Gordon), a mathematics graduate student who comes to understand his ancestor Thomasina’s genius; his sister Chloe (Arielle Fishman), an 18-year-old with brains and a healthy libido; and Gus (also played by Butler), the younger brother who hasn’t spoken since he was 5 — appear in present-day Sidley Park. They interact with two very different writers who have come to the estate to do research: Hannah Jarvis (Vanessa Morosco), author of a bestseller on Lord Byron’s mistress Lady Caroline Lamb, and Bernard Nightingale (Peter Simon Hilton), an academic who is hoping to prove that Lord Byron killed Ezra Chater in a duel.

Hoping to solve the mystery of an unidentified hermit who lived on the estate’s grounds until 1834, Hannah clashes with Bernard, particularly once she discovers he is the same critic who panned her Lamb book. Though he and Valentine, who refers to Hannah as his girlfriend, would like to get up close and personal with her, she remains fixed on her historic quest.

Bernard’s major lust, however, is for celebrity. Even more than proving his Byron-Chater thesis, he’s looking forward to going on talk shows to talk about it. As noted in the play, for Bernard, rhetoric is a kind of performance art. Hilton plays the academic — who is, as it happens, mistaken — with a self-involved yet irresistible flamboyance, giving each of his scenes a jolt of energy.

The commingling of past and present in the final scene of “Arcadia” is a powerful device, as director Lewis helps characters from the two eras achieve a perfect mirroring synchronicity in several key actions. As much as “Arcadia” is loaded with intricate, sometimes complex ideas, it is also a grand emotional journey, one that Lewis, his collaborators, the actors and the audience take together to a place of melancholy, sweetness and fulfillment.

“Arcadia” runs through April 30 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday, and 7 p.m. some Sundays. Tickets cost $66 ($10 for students). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.

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