Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

The Hard Problem
Wilma Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall


Michael Pedicin and Sarah Gliko
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev
Philosopher David Chalmers coined the term "the hard problem of consciousness" to describe the process by which the brain assigns specific characteristics to the phenomena we experience. In a nutshell—if it's possible to break such a complex concept down that far—it comes down to what Chalmers calls "the problem of experience": why does a work of art make us cry? Why does the color blue remind you of your childhood? Are the mind and the brain one and the same? Such a topic could make for a brilliant section in a university seminar on phenomenology, but would you ever consider using it as the backbone for a serio-comedic play?

If you're name is Tom Stoppard, you obviously would. This brilliant dramatist has spent his 50-year career spinning gold from the most unexpected—and, often, untheatrical—hay. Prior examples of such include the curious relationship between chaos therapy, Romantic poetry, and British gardening (Arcadia, 1993); Russian intellectualism in the early nineteenth century (The Coast of Utopia, 2002; and even, ahem, theater criticism (The Real Inspector Hound, 1968). The Hard Problem—which bowed early last year at London's National Theatre and is receiving its U.S. premiere at Philadelphia's Wilma Theatre—is Stoppard's first new play in almost a decade.

The Wilma has long been an artistic home for Stoppard, who, like the company's Artistic Director Blanka Zizka, was born in what is now the Czech Republic. Zizka directs the current production, which features a coterie of familiar faces from the Philadelphia theater scene. The action centers around Hilary (Sarah Gliko), a psychology student up for a position at the tony (and fictional) Krohl Institute for Brain Science. On paper, she is not an ideal candidate: second class university, second class degree, unpublished. And her greatest outlying characteristic by far is that in a world of hard science, she is a person of faith.

Hilary's "hard problem," one could say, is how to reconcile the existence of God with the human inclination toward doubt. Whether directly or indirectly expressed, this forms much of the play's breezy, intermissionless 100 minutes. The men in Hilary's life are almost uniformly rationalists: her former tutor and sometime-lover Spike (Ross Beschler); Amal (Shravan Amin), the brilliant neurobiologist who is passed over by the Krohl in favor of Hilary; and Leo (Lindsay Smiling), Hilary's boss, who attempts to dissuade her from researching the gray matter of religious thought. Hilary earns her doctorate and begins her career in earnest, but Stoppard consistently reminds us that something deeper is gnawing at her core.

The Hard Problem is perhaps Stoppard's most blissfully entertaining play since The Real Thing (1982). Aside from the fact that, like the earlier play, questions of love and human connection permeate, Stoppard's new work manages to be both cerebral and economical; the dialogue is as natural as jazz without sacrificing any of the subject matter's integral intricacy. Perhaps that is why Stoppard and Zizka decided to underscore the production with live, improvised music from saxophonist Michael Pedicin.

As Hilary, Gliko (a member of The Wilma Hothouse, the company's resident acting company) is sensational. She ideally conveys the character's contradictory temperament, making her at once sympathetic and frustrating. Even a devoted Stoppard fan like me can admit that he is not exactly known for his well-rounded female characters; Hilary could represent a new paradigm in the playwright's oeuvre.

There is hardly a weak link in the large cast, though. Beschler, Amin, and Smiling entertainingly represent Hilary's interactions with men, both professionally and personally. Taysha Canales and Krista Apple-Hodge give witty performances as Hilary's former schoolmate, an itinerant pilates instructor, and her lover, a colleague at the institute. Wilma regular Steven Rishard is great fun as Krohl himself—a figure at once enigmatic and oversized. Jeena Yi earns the audience's sympathy as a young researcher who longs to impress Hilary, likely to her own detriment.

It is clear that Zizka understands how a Stoppard play works. Her production accentuates every nuance and cadence in his dialogue, which allows the play to unspool at a clip that is both breathless and finely etched. She has wisely chosen to use an alley configuration, which promotes a necessary sense of intimacy between the performers and the audience. The blindingly white set (by Matt Saunders), evocative lighting (by Thom Weaver), and precise costumes (by Vasilija Zivanic) are all perfect.

One hopes that Stoppard won't make us wait another ten years for his next play, especially if it is as entertaining and thought provoking as The Hard Problem. Philadelphians are urged to get themselves down to Broad Street, so they can be among the first to see a brilliant new play by a true living master.

The Hard Problem continues at The Wilma Theater (265 S. Broad Street in Philadelphia) through Sunday, February 6, 2016. Tickets for all performances through January 31 are $25 ($10 for students and theater artists with valid ID). Tickets for performances February 2-6 are $45. Tickets can be purchased online at www.wilmatheater.org, by phone (215-546-7824), or in person at the box office (Monday, 10:30-6; Tuesday-Thursday, 10:30-7; Friday-Saturday, 12-7:30; Sunday, 12-7).


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