In 1768, British artist Joseph Wright created a painting titled, “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump.” The painting, which hangs in London’s National Gallery, portrayed a scientific experiment involving potential harm to an animal as a family affair, with a number of attendant emotions in play.
In 1998, British playwright Shelagh Stephenson used Wright’s painting as inspiration for her play, An Experiment with an Air Pump. The play centers on family dynamics and the ongoing debate over the “two cultures” (science and the humanities). Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company has revived the play as part of its residency at La Jolla Playhouse. The company has assembled a crackerjack director and cast to present a production that is both challenging and enormously rewarding.
The play takes place at the same northern England house on the eves of two millennia: in 1799 and 1999. In 1799, a family resides in the house, whose activities center around Fenwick (Robert Smyth), its patriarch’s, cutting-edge medical research. Fenwick is married to Susannah (Susan Angelo), a poet and mother of two daughters, Harriet (Caroline Keeler) and Maria (Olivia Cordell). Harriet is interested in writing and staging theatrical performances, while Maria is suffering through the pains of a long-distance courtship via exchange of letters. The family employs one servant, Isobel (Jessica John). Fenwick has two research assistants on site: Armstrong (Francis Gercke), and Roget (Justin Lang). Both men are attracted to Isobel, for different reasons.
In 1999, the house is occupied by a married couple, Tom (Mr. Smyth) and Ellen (Ms. Angelo). Tom, a university lecturer in English, has found himself out of work and with few prospects, while Ellen is a star geneticist who is weighing an offer from a technology company, headed by Kate (Ms. Keeler), that is poised to take advantage of the project to sequence the human genome. An engineer named Phil (Mr. Gercke) is also on site conducting a study of the old home and in the process finds a body buried under the house.
There is something of a reversal of family dynamics between the two eras: In 1799, Susannah feels underappreciated, despite her success as a poet, and attempts by the women in the household to assert independence are thwarted, either subtly or openly. In 1999, both Ellen and Kate are strong, successful, and independent, while Tom describes himself as “redundant.” There are also philosophical debates in both eras about scientific ethics and the role of science in understanding humanity.
With a number of characters, all of whom are important to the plot, and a script that jumps continually between 1799 and 1999, there is a lot for audiences to absorb. Enter Richard Baird, a director who specializes in theatre classics. An expert with actors, Mr. Baird has helped the cast to keep both major stories and various subplots coherent, and the company responds with performances that are subtle and nuanced and, where appropriate, find connections across the two eras.
Mr. Smyth, the Producing Artistic Director of Lamb’s Players Theatre, and Ms. Angelo, a resident artist at Pasadena’s A Noise Within theatre company, resonate well with each other and play the reversal in roles between their 1799 and 1999 characters with both skill and sensitivity. Ms. John, too, succeeds in finding humor in how Isobel deals with her role as the family’s servant – and how she deals with the attentions of the two research assistants.
The production manages to be surprisingly effective in the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre, the smallest venue on the La Jolla Playhouse campus. Tony Cucuzella’s scenic design relies heavily on props for its effectiveness, Jeanne Reith’s costumes reflect each era well, while Joel Britt’s lighting and TJ Fucella’s sound contribute to overall atmospherics.
Backyard Renaissance has used its La Jolla Playhouse residency to jump from being a company that produces occasionally to being a company that is presenting a season (next up is Richard Greenberg’s The Dazzle, in November at the 10th Avenue Arts Center). The company looks as though it is here to stay, and that’s a very good thing for the state of San Diego theatre.