Theater Review: Science Versus Romance At Gamm Theatre's 'Arcadia'

Sep 22, 2016

The Czechoslovakian-born English writer Tom Stoppard's 1993 play “Arcadia” was a huge hit in London and well-enough received in New York. Now the Gamm Theatre has taken on the work. 

Rhode Island Public Radio's Bill Gale says this “Arcadia” is something of a mixed blessing.

My dictionary defines “Arcadia” as “Any place or region thought to epitomize rustic contentment and simplicity.”

Well, those sweet enhancements are a long way from Stoppard's view. I suspect the playwright was merely playing a little joke on us with his title. His long, strong play, roiled with comedy, underscored with tragedy, is nothing if not complex.

Filled as it is with highly sophisticated humor, “Arcadia” is really asking about (but not finding) answers to questions about God, about meaning, about after-life. It wants to know how can we exist in a world that continues to have non-ending discouragements?

Set on a lovely English ancestral estate, “Arcadia” looks in on two time frames. One is in the early eighteen hundreds. There, in splendid costumes designed by David T, Howard and Jessie Darrell Jarbadan, live a number of upper-class Brits. In their own way, they look into questions of great meaning. And they reel amid their troubles, the un-sure implications of life and love.

Switch now to 1993 at the same place. Here we have people with computers and fast cars along with much less lovely clothing. But guess what? Two hundred years or so later these folks are struggling just as  hard, just as mixed up as their predecessors. The ancestors may have struggled with Romanticism but the latter-day folks have the same problems under science.

What are you gonna do in this injured world is what Stoppard seems to be asking. His answer? Well, you'll have to see “Arcadia.” And try to come up with your own idea.

At the Gamm, director Fred Sullivan Jr. has given a production that moves at a speedy pace, a good idea since “Arcadia” runs about 2 hours 40 minutes with one intermission.

His cast is completely into serving speedy Brit-talk which sometimes results in being a bit hard to follow over here in USA-land. You find yourself sometimes not quite-making out all of what is being rapidly put before you. That, and it's perhaps overdone length takes away some, but hardly all, of the thought, and thrust, of “Arcadia”

The production has first-rate performances. Playing an upper-class tutor to a very wealthy and smart 13 year old who is addressed as “m'lady” Jeff Church is a great teacher. At one moment he's full of self-assurance. In another he's as confused as everybody else.

Jeanine Kane and the Gamm's artistic director Tony Estrella, are both winsome (that's Estrella) and forceful if unsure (that's Kane) in well-thought out performances. 

Jesse Hinson and the always likeable Tom Gleadow lend strong support to the main characters.

So, “Arcadia” goes it's own way. It's a play about life and love, about pain and suffering, about just trying to cope with this world. The play says that we are forever facing problems that may seem very different but are truly the same.

Sure, there are variations, Stoppard seems to be saying. Computers versus poetry, for instance. But in the end there is the same finish for us all. “Somewhere there has to be something,” one character says. “You just have to find it.”

“Acadia” continues at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket through October 16th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio