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Theater Review: “An Experiment with an Air Pump”

“An Experiment with an Air Pump” plays through August 25, 2019 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).
Photo credit:
Daren Scott

Count on Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company to come up with thought-provoking drama. This time, it’s British playwright Shelagh Stephenson’s 1997 “An Experiment with an Air Pump,” a time-jumping consideration of the ethics of science in general and of medical research and genetic testing in particular.

Toss in clever dialogue and a bit of a mystery, and you’ve got a winner.

The action takes place in the Dusseldorf home of Joseph Fenwick (Robert Smyth) in two specific years – 1799 and 1999 – and jumps between the two.  Most of the seven cast members play a character in both centuries.

In 1799, Fenwick is a scientist because he wants “to change the world.” He feels that science is a democratizing force that will lead to the abolition of the monarchy in England within 100 years. “The best tonic in the world is the sound of institutions tumbling,” he says.

His wife Susannah (Susan Angelo*), a neglected housewife and angry about it, doesn’t hesitate to register her complaints. They have two daughters, Harriet (Caroline Keeler) and Maria (Olivia Cordell). Harriet has been encouraged to write poetry, but wants to be a physician like her father. Maria is engaged to the unseen but (to us) evidently unsuitable Edward, to whom she spends an extraordinary amount of time writing letters.

Thomas Armstrong (Francis Gercke*) is a cold, ruthless physician staying with the Fenwicks for three months. His interest is the structure of the human body, and he takes particular interest in Isobel Bridie (Jessica John), who almost steals the show as the Fenwicks’ spunky but hunchbacked maid.

Justin Lang plays Peter Mark Roget (of thesaurus fame) in 1799 – the only character based on fact. He is uneasy about the ethics of science, but says he is a scientist because he wants “to understand the world.”

Susannah explains the title, taken from a 1767 painting by Joseph Wright demonstrating that life cannot exist in a vacuum.  A live bird placed in a glass globe struggles as the air is pumped out (the bird was ultimately released, still alive).

Susannah notes her own fascination with science, but concludes that her ambition is “to be God,” though as the play progresses it becomes clear that she might settle for not being ignored.

In 1999, the tables are turned as Smyth’s Fenwick becomes Tom, a lecturer in history who has just lost his job. Angelo’s Susannah becomes wife Ellen, a geneticist deciding whether to take a job with friend Kate’s genetic research company. Kate is played by Keeler.

Tom decides it’s time to sell (or perhaps remodel) the old homestead, which brings workman Phil (Gercke), who accidentally unearths a set of human bones in the basement. What is their story?

Director Richard Baird directs this lengthy (two and a half hours) piece at a snappy pace, which is welcome to audience members, though if I am a good sample the pacing sometimes results in getting lost in the accent thickets.

But the questions under discussion – Is science blessing or curse? Are there (or should there be) limits on scientific method? – and the excellence of this presentation should inspire a good discussion over coffee or spirits with friends after the show.

The details

“An Experiment with an Air Pump” plays through August 25, 2019 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 pm; Industry Night Aug. 19 at 7:30 pm.