There are the things we know, and then there are the things we don’t know. And then there are the things we think we know because people who purport to know tell us that we know them, or almost know them, or know enough to think we know them.
But sometimes these people are wrong.
Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, now at the Folger Theatre, pays brilliant tribute to this impulse to know. As one of the play’s historians, Hannah Jarvis (Holly Twyford) notes, ”It’s the wanting to know that makes us human.”
Moving quite seamlessly between the 19th and 21st centuries, the landscape of Arcadia is one where the exchange of knowledge and information is played like a complicated but fast-paced game of cards. This might mean gossip among the members of the household staff, the meticulous game records squirreled away in the corners of a centuries-old manor or the impenetrable thoughts of a boy who does not speak.
The weight of the information itself matters far less than the skill of the individual player. For some in Sidley Park — both past and present — knowledge is a completely malleable thing. The most trivial of details can assume the substance of a boulder or the foundations for seeing the world in a new and wondrous way.
Thomasina Coverly (Erin Weaver) is the most uncomfortable of things in the early days of the 1800s. She is a phenomenally smart 13-year-old girl whose skills with science and math are genius. She spends a good deal of her time with her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Cody Nickell), who in turn spends a good deal of his time trying to keep his young charge on task. Thomasina has a habit of turning her attention away from the studies she is meant to be doing, algebra, and setting them instead on the unknown. Things like the geometric shape of the universe.
Thomasina is matched in our present day by Jarvis, an historian whose skill as a researcher and theorist is dismissed by some as charming, feminist meanderings. It is, in fact, entirely due to her impulsive desire for discovery that Jarvis finds herself in an uncomfortable academic partnership with one of those very detractors, Bernard Nightingale (Eric Hissom).
But where Nightingale wants to make a name by unlocking the secrets of Sidley Park, Jarvis is motivated by something simpler. Like Thomasina, she wants to know what happened because there is nothing as alluring as those things we do not know.
Director Aaron Posner wisely counsels audience members not to become too caught up in the details of Arcadia, itself a tangle of math and science and literary references. And for some this will be the key to unlocking the enjoyment of this play. It is an admittedly dense thing, but only because it is playing both the scholar and the clown. Delightfully funny and provocatively inquisitive.
But given that the fictional English estate of Sidley Park finds itself temporarily residing onstage in Washington, D.C., the references will be a sure delight for a good number of audience members. This is a play that reveals archivists and historians and mathematicians to be the passionate detectives many are, the discovery of a letter or a theorem as exhilarating as skydiving.
Posner’s skill as a director of the works of Shakespeare is most definitely called into service as he brings Stoppard’s complex play solidly to earth with a sure but light hand. His imprint is an almost imperceptible thing, allowing the work to breathe and live on its own.
Abetting Posner’s work as a director is a splendid cast of familiar faces turning in some outstanding performances. Suzanne O’Donnell is charged with the caretaking of the Lady Croom, a character whose love of knowledge is limited to those instances when she is right. O’Donnell gives the Lady her comedy without giving up one bit of her bite. Her rages are a riot.
As Jarvis, Twyford is lovely. She’s sarcastic without being shrill, dry without being humorless and vulnerable without becoming weak. Her scenes with Hissom, the obnoxious lout you could imagine spending an (almost) enjoyable evening with, have a fantastic tension. Better, it’s nearly impossible to determine whether this tension is born of adoration or contempt.
But the play’s standout performance belongs to Weaver as the 13-year-old prodigy. It’s a stunning turn with the actor having developed a unique and exceptionally expressive catalog of gesture, stance and voice, which she uses to conjure Thomasina from the imagined past. When Weaver is onstage it is almost impossible to take your eyes from her. When she is off the stage you will wait for her to return.
It has been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Arcadia does not attempt to explain Frank Lloyd Wright with a waltz, but it does a masterful job of making math and science and the geometry of our lives sing.