Deep Dish Theater

Through March 22

Either you love Tom Stoppard’s erudition, which runs through his plays like quicksilver, or it makes you grumpy with its elaborate high-flown thoughts on pretty much everything. “Rapier wit” is an apt term for Stoppard’s skewering of, for instance, academics, as he does so very well in his 1993 play, Arcadia, now running at Chapel Hill’s Deep Dish Theater. There’s no deep emotion here, or surprising plot twists, but an exhilarating blend of farce and serious thought on knowledge, time, mathematics and the second law of thermodynamics. You know that one, even if not by name: it’s the law of nature concerning entropy, that tells us the universe tends toward disorder. Put another way, it is the process that turns coffee and cream into one undifferentiated mixture.

But humans are forever trying to separate and differentiate, to pull something crystalline from the soup of fact, conjecture and supposition, and Stoppard uses those equal and opposite forces to create his intellectual drama. Arcadia takes place at Sidley Park, an English country estate in Derbyshire (“that most perfect of all counties,” in Jane Austen’s words) in 1809, 1812, and the present, and involves us with scholars, learning and the hunt for truth, or at least the appearance of truth that will render a splashy publication. Along the way, we consider the limits of Newtonian physics, the transition from the Age of Reason to the Romantic Era, as it appears in English landscape design, and the way in which careless treatment of historical evidence can produce a flawless chain of reasoning resulting in lies.

Although this production cannot be called scintillating, as any Stoppard show should be, it does sparkle at times. Director Paul Frellick has put together a cast combining seasoned actors with young newcomers, and they blend very well. Dorothy Recasner Brown (making a welcome return to the stage after a four-year hiatus) stands out as modern-day historian Hannah Jarvis, who’s researching records at Sidley Park. She’s careful, orderly and thorough, and tries not to theorize in advance of the data. Her counterpart and opposite is the blustering bully Bernard Nightingale, who twists and shoves the evidence to fit his longed-for history. Eric Carl has his bluff nastiness down to a T, but the long single note of his interpretation becomes wearing.

Also in the present we have Sidley Park family member Valentine Coverly, very well played by Adam Sampieri (also freshly returned to the stage after a long break), grousing about his uncooperative mathematical dissertation involving grouse, until Hannah brings his attention to a tantalizing equation in the records. This equation was devised by young Thomasina Coverly (played with a piquant combination of poise and verve by Carrboro high school student Nicole Gabriel), in the midst of her classical education by Septimus Hodge (Ryan Brock, oddly stiff and unsexy). The equally youthful Will Pierson, although he has few lines, has a strong presence as her younger brother, and as the younger brother in the present day. Sampieri, Gabriel and Pierson all subvert the director’s metronomic timing to delightful effect, allowing insight into the directionalityor notof time’s arrow.

This article appeared in print with the headline “A family lashes out at a doctor in Love Alone, a revival of Stoppard’s Arcadia