- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

Director Aaron Posner’s dazzling production of “Arcadia” at the Folger Theatre is a spring tonic for the soul, a reminder of why we love theater and of the intellect and heart of the playwright Tom Stoppard.

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s architectural grandeur is the perfect setting for the play, which takes place in Sidley Park, a posh English country estate. Daniel Conway’s glorious white marble and gilded set, with its delicate French doors and leather-bound book-lined walls, further suggests wealth and refinement.

Written in 1993, “Arcadia” is quintessential Stoppard, a hybrid of highbrow ideas. These include fads in landscape gardening, chaos theory, English algebra, the nature of genius, Lord Byron and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as well as the complications that inevitably arise from carnal embrace.

The play shifts between the end of the Age of Reason and the dawning of the Romantic Era to 1990s England, and past and present mingle magically in a single room. The 1800s are dominated by adolescent math prodigy Thomasina Coverly (Erin Weaver, who matures from a precocious brat to a young woman of substance and poise) and her handsome tutor, Septimus Hodge (the dashing Cody Nickell), a friend of Lord Byron’s. Lady Croom (an elegantly seductive Suzanne O’Donnell) and her guests express the emotional upheaval of the Bryonic Era through various sexual intrigues - “the attraction that Newton left out” - occurring in the estate’s renovated gardens.

Fast forward to the present, where descendants of the Coverly family still roam Sidley Park, including Valentine (Peter Stray, greatly appealing as a science nerd); the flirtatious Chloe (Margo Seibert), a math genius; and the silent, observant Gus (Benjamin Schiffbauer). They all flit around Hannah Jarvis (Holly Twyford), a historian who is working on a history of the gardens and the identity of the mysterious hermit who lived in the estate’s picturesque hovel during the 1800s.

Hannah is searching for truth, and her colleague, the preening Bernard Nightingale (Eric Hissom, who gives conceit charisma and sex appeal), is searching for celebrity. He believes his shot at fame lies in proving that Lord Byron not only visited Sidley Park, but fought a duel there.

“Arcadia” is, in part, a celebration of feminine instinct: Thomasina senses she has stumbled upon a revolutionary concept even though she lacks the math to prove it, and Hannah has a gut feeling who the hermit is. A strain of tragedy runs throughout; mostly in the character of Thomasina, cruelly born out of time. This emotion is echoed in the character - personified by Miss Twford as a woman of great intellectual gifts who cannot bring herself to feel.

Yet Mr. Stoppard cautions that over-reliance on feeling can be dangerous, but the pursuit of knowledge and truth can be as ravishing as pleasures of the flesh.

Mr. Posner keeps the production moving at an airy, nimble pace, which showcases both the brainiac glitter of Mr. Stoppard’s dialogue and the agility of the actors, all impeccably cast from butler to blueblood. In smaller roles, Cooper D’Ambrose shines as an empty-headed amateur poet, as does Stephen D’Ambrose as a hothouse flower of a horticulturist.

“Arcadia” is the best of both worlds - the perfect marriage of romanticism and enlightenment.

RATING: ****

WHAT: “Arcadia,” by Tom Stoppard

WHERE: Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 14.

TICKETS: $34 to $55

PHONE: 202/544-7077

WEB SITE: www.folger.edu/theatre

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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