Eugene Weekly : Theater : 4.9.2009


Impermanence, Persistence, Death
Stoppard’s Arcadia fires the mind at LCC
by suzi steffen

Tender, tenuous threads connect past and present, science and literature, love and death — and don’t forget the tortoise! 

British playwright Tom Stoppard weaves these and more in his gorgeous comedy/romance Arcadia, playing now at LCC’s Blue Door Theatre. 

Thomasinia Coverly (Leela Gouveia) doesn’t like what her tutor (Chas King) is reading. Photo Michael Brinkerhoff

Arcadia, as art history majors will know and as a lengthy note outside of the theater tells others, refers in part to the 17th-century artist Nicholas Poussin’s two paintings Et In Arcadia Ego. In these paintings (which also refer to other, older paintings and to Virgil’s Eclogues), four rural folks gather around a gravestone on which the words of the painting’s title are chiseled. 

Knowing about Tom Stoppard’s limitless curiosity and intellect, I surmise that he was aware of both potential meanings of the Latin phrase. The most accepted now means something like “Even in Paradise, I (Death) exist,” but Romantics were fond of thinking that the phrase meant that the dead person meant “I lived in Paradise.” 

In the play, Paradise is represented by a large English manor, where two times meet. The first time is during the Napoleonic Wars, an era when Lord Byron was traipsing about England and when wealthy, exceptionally gifted, noble girls like Thomasina Coverly (Leela Gouveia, in a fine performance) had their education cut off when they hit the age of marriage. Thomasina’s tutor Septimus Hodge (Chas King, also quite strong) vies for the attentions of Thomasina’s mother (played last weekend by Lilith Lincoln-Dinan and, if she’s recovered from laryngitis, by Kim Wilson from now on) and writes scathing if anonymous reviews of the poetry of Ezra Chater (Adam Leonard) while avoiding duels caused by his “carnal knowledge” of Mrs. Chater. 

That’s rather too much plot, but much of this strand concerns a world balanced on the brink between rational and Romantic, between analysis and emotion, between the English garden of Capability Brown with its classical gazebos and that of neo-Gothic “ruins” and wild tangles. The second is represented in the person of gardener Richard Noakes (Benjamin Newman, in a quietly competent performance). Discussions between Thomasina and her tutor cover Euclidean geometry, calculus, gravity and a variety of other topics; especially important discussions revolve around the nature of heat. Gouveia and King do an excellent job of engaging with the ideas while maintaining their characters.

In alternating scenes, at the same manor but in the present, the objects (memento mori) touched by the earlier set of people become a puzzle for the modern folk. The modern Coverly family is hosting a popular author and scholar, Hannah Jarvis (Margot Delaittre), who’s writing a follow-up to her bestselling but harshly reviewed book about Lord Byron’s lover, Lady Caroline Lamb. Then a stranger comes to the country: Bernard Nightingale (Simon Strange, who’s simply superb in the first act and would be near-perfect if he could tone down the exaggerated gestures of the second act). Nightengale, a Byron scholar, penned one of the rudest reviews but now needs the cooperation and help of Jarvis in solving a puzzle about Lord Byron. 

There’s much more to the script, more than this list can convey, but here’s a start: Literature vs. science (Should there be a split?); the loss of female genius under a system gamed for noblemen; intellectual arrogance that turns to humiliation and, perhaps, humility; the unbearably poignant exhalations of past centuries and their documents (a reflection of, and on, both 18th-century fascination with Roman ruins and 19th-century fascination with wilderness?); rivulets of power and how they’re distributed among humans of above-average intelligence; math that can change the world. 

Or can it? Every human, even those in the paradise of new thoughts and discoveries and desires, dies. Directory Mary Unruh writes in her notes, “This is a story of life and love, which a memento mori reminds us to embrace.” True, and also a gloss on the partly Romantic, faintly pleasurable ache that pervades the second act. The final scene plays out as the audience agonizes over what we know will happen to the characters, and by extension to the actors and to us all.

The play both is and feels long, and several actors simply can’t keep up either with the script or the skills of others. But Arcadia remains sharply funny, wonderfully packed with ideas and a complex mingling of mind and body. Read the script for an appreciation of Stoppard’s brain, and engage with the performed play at LCC for hard-won rewards.

Arcadia runs through April 18. Tix at or 463-5761.