South Coast’s ‘Arcadia’ Finds Order in Chaos
“Arcadia” is the most romantic play about thermodynamics and chaos theory ever written. It is also the most enjoyable.
Understanding this, South Coast Repertory has paid careful attention to casting the two romantic leads in its worthwhile new production of “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard’s extraordinary 1993 intellectual detective story. Matt Keeslar plays the dashing Septimus Hodge, school chum of Lord Byron and tutor at Sidley Park, a British country estate whose gardens, in the year 1809, are undergoing a transformation from structured to seemingly unordered. This transformation is echoed in the discoveries of Septimus’ student Thomasina Coverly (Rona Benson), a charming teenage girl who foresees the path of modern physics about 150 years before anyone else on earth.
The chaste romance of Septimus and Thomasina is not only immensely touching, it comes to represent a kind of pinnacle of unfilled human promise. At Sidley Park, Septimus is something of a ladies’ man, a quick wit who hilariously quells the ire of a would-be poet he has cuckolded by promising to write a glowing review of his poetry for a local journal. But Septimus’ attitude toward his young charge is impeccably correct. Through his nonchalant but constant interest in her, he acts as midwife to the astounding things that are spilling from her mind into her math practice book.
Keeslar’s movie career has taken off since 1995, his last appearance on the SCR stage, and he is more at ease on stage now. He makes it infinitely understandable why the adult women in the play meet him in the gazebo, the preferred trysting place at Sidley Park. As his young prodigy, the dime-sized Benson is fresh and straightforward, as if the complex ideas incubating in her brain were realizations that every girl comes to in her studies.
Their growing understanding is the arc that runs through the play as it spans two centuries, cross-cutting between the household of Thomasina and her mother Lady Croom (Marnie Mosiman), and the current day residents of Sidley Park, including the amateur scholar Valentine Coverly (Benjamin Livingston) and his more aimless sister, Chloe (Blake Lindsley). They are both drawn to two visiting, rival scholars: Hannah Jarvis (Linda Gehringer), a woman distrustful of affection, and Bernard Nightingale (Charles Lanyer), an ambitious professor with few scruples. How much these characters guess and intuit and get wrong about Thomasina and Septimus and their world gives the play an overlay, a flesh-and-blood story in which to understand all the talk about the properties of heat and chaos.
The pleasure of the play is in watching Stoppard balance so many ideas at once with so much grace and wit. In one virtuoso Act 2 scene, Nightingale reads his paper, full of erroneous assumptions about Byron’s involvement at Sidley Hall. Listening are the pathetically adoring Chloe, the hostile but jealous Hannah and the reticent Valentine. When he is done, a raging argument breaks out among them, a debate that simultaneously pits art against science, deliberation against daring, and the thin-blooded sensitivity of the upper classes against the tougher hides of people who must always work for a living.
Under director David Emmes, the play unfolds cleanly and clearly. The casting, however, is uneven. The contemporary professor Nightingale, for instance, is a largely unsavory fellow who nevertheless must convey charm as well as arrogance. Yet Lanyer immediately signals untrustworthiness (in fact he is often cast as a villain or a critic), which makes Nightingale too boorish. As the promiscuous Chloe, Lindsley is one-dimensionally bratty, merely silly when she should also be sad.
On the other hand, Gehringer is quite good getting at the insecurity beneath Hannah’s toughness, less good at capturing whatever is driving Hannah’s emotional remoteness. Livingston is excellent as Valentine, Prince Charles-like in that he seems both addled and smart, a man trying as much as he can to get involved in the world around him. On the other side of time, Mosiman’s Lady Croom is glamorous and formidable.
But it is Keeslar and Benson in the central roles who stick in the memory, creating the hint of Arcadia, the paradise lost. Be careful with the flame, Septimus tells Thomasina in the final scene as he hands her a lighted candle. The flame, we understand, refers to the danger of actual fire, as well as to knowledge, passion, chaos and human love. In the story of these two young people, Stoppard seems to have solved the problem of chaos by ordering a complex universe that is ineffably beautiful and so makes its own intrinsic sense.
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* “Arcadia,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m. Ends May 10. $28-$43. (714) 708-5555.
Rona Benson: Thomasina Coverly
Matt Keeslar: Septimus Hodge
Don Took: Jellaby
Bill Mondy: Ezra Chater
Hal Landon Jr.: Richard Noakes
Marnie Mosiman: Lady Croom
David Whalen: Captain Brice, RN
Linda Gehringer: Hannah Jarvis
Blake Lindsley: Chloe Coverly
Charles Lanyer: Bernard Nightingale
Benjamin Livingston: Valentine Coverly
Jonathan Ficcadenti, Justin Grant Wade: Gus Coverly/Augustus Coverly
A South Coast Repertory production. By Tom Stoppard. Directed by David Emmes. Sets James Youmans. Costumes Walker Hicklin. Lights Tom Ruzika. Music and sound Michael Roth. Choreography Sylvia C. Turner. Wigs Carol F. Doran. Production manager Jeff Gifford. Stage manager Julie Haber.