- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Those who savor Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia” as a singular experience can just let go of that chimera. Shelagh Stephenson’s “An Experiment With an Air Pump” brazenly pays homage to Mr. Stoppard’s masterpiece in its silken shifting between centuries and is breathtakingly similar in its mingling of erudition and emotion.

“Air Pump” may lack the sparkling wordplay of “Arcadia” and the abundant, nimble wit, but the playwrights share an affinity for tackling bigger questions than will boy get girl. With “Arcadia,” Mr. Stoppard combined chaos theory and Lord Byron with differing approaches to landscape gardening in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as a meditation on how female mathematical geniuses largely have been erased by history.

Miss Stephenson’s play is equally far-reaching, using the painting “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump,” by Joseph Wright of Derby, to introduce a compelling discourse on the morality of science and the ability of passion to both elevate and deform.

Director Cheryl Faraone adeptly juggles ethical issues with matters of the heart in Olney’s first-rate production, appearing as part of the annual Potomac Theatre Project. “Air Pump” swings between two epochs — 1799, the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, and 1999, the eve of a new century in which man has unlocked the secrets of DNA and holds the power to lord over nature.

The 1700s are represented by Joseph Fenwick (Stephen F. Schmidt), a physician and revered scientist, and his family — his ignored and derisive wife, Susannah (Connan Morrissey), and their twin daughters, the inquisitive and ill-tempered Harriet (Lily Balsen) and the seemingly milder Maria (Lauren Turner Kiel).

Joseph and his clan are also surrounded by two fawning colleagues — Thomas Armstrong (Clinton Brandhagen), a doctor who believes right and wrong should not stand in the way of scientific knowledge, and Peter Mark Roget (Bill Army), a devoted list-maker who winds up compiling that little-known reference volume, the thesaurus.

The Fenwick household in Newcastle-on-Tyne is maintained by Isobel (Tara Giordano), a well-read servant whose love of words is as straight and sharp as her body is misshapen. Armstrong romances Isobel, although, in truth, he is motivated by a perverted medical curiosity about her humped back. His unlocking of her neglected heart — and her heated, unbound reaction to his calculated seducing — is the most haunting and disturbing aspect of a play that is devoted largely to high-minded academic and moral quandaries.

The 20th century is seen through the eyes of Ellen (played by Miss Morrissey, who with Mr. Schmidt does double duty as the modern-day couple), a researcher who has discovered a genetic map in the DNA of children. She’s being wooed from her university job to a biotech company by Kate (Laura C. Harris), a scientist firmly rooted in the future and all its infinite possibilities. Kate finds the academic world weighed down by remembrance and history. Ellen, on the other hand, can see the ethical minefields that accompany her discovery. Should she ignore her conscience and take the big bucks — or remain poor and uncompromised?

Now the occupants of the Fenwick house, Ellen and her husband, Tom (Mr. Schmidt), a “redundant” English professor, plan to sell it because of high maintenance costs. A workman (Mr. Brandhagen) finds a dismembered skeleton under the kitchen floor, opening up a centuries-old mystery about the household’s former occupants and what they did in the ruthless pursuit of science.

Miss Morrissey is striking in both eras —needy, tipsy and slightly embarrassing as the dismissed wife Susannah; grounded and gleamingly certain as Ellen. Mr. Schmidt, though, creates a more touching portrait as the suddenly unnecessary English lecturer; as Joseph Fenwick, he’s full of ego and bluster but little else.

The standout performance in “Air Pump” belongs to Miss Giordano’s Isobel, whose character is the humble conscience and roughened heart of the play. She expertly uses her petite stature to create a character who is seemingly as insignificant and movable as the furniture. Yet, there’s something strong and fixed in Miss Giordano’s Isobel, a fierce power and intelligence that burns as brightly in 1799 as it does in the last days of the 20th century.

“Air Pump” is not escapist summer fare. Its ideas could hold Stephen Hawking rapt, but the play also captivates the less analytical parts of the mind in its depiction of how passion can challenge even the most hermetic human equation.


WHAT: “An Experiment With an Air Pump” by Shelagh Stephenson

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: Playing in repertory with “No End of Blame” as part of the Potomac Theatre Project. Through July 23.


PHONE: 301/924-3400


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