By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Last month playwright Tom Stoppard, author of The Hard Problem, and David Chalmers, the philosopher who coined the phrase "The Hard Problem," appeared on the Wilma stage to discuss, muse upon, and debate the nature of consciousness. What, Stoppard wondered aloud, is the connection between consciousness and value, "undemonstrable, undefinable, but necessary value." Chalmers quipped that "consciousness is that annoying time between naps."
That heady night was followed by another heady night, the opening of The Hard Problem, directed by Blanka Zizka, one of Stoppard's foremost interpreters
The play asks hard questions: what's the difference between brains and minds? Can a computer think or is it just a fancy toaster? What is to be done with the sublime in a rational, material world? Is altruism possible or does all goodness spring from self-interest? Are human beings hard-wired for selfishness and only unselfish when we override our nature?
And answer came there none.
The excellent cast is tasked with delivering some very complex dialogue, since these characters are super-smart and are working on difficult philosophic problems. These American actors are further burdened with British accents and with speaking to a divided audience flanking the stage, and having to turn first left then right. This doesn't always work out so well, since there were moments when a crucial word was inaudible.
Hilary (Sarah Gliko), the central character, is a young scientist who believes that people can be good, and that there is a God to pray to; her nightly prayers are for her daughter, a baby she gave up for adoption when she was fifteen. The plot finally comes to rest on a "miracle," a "coincidence," one of those shameless conveniences of dramaturgy that makes the thematic point but seems too easy.
Hilary is off-and-on sexually involved with Spike (Ross Beschler), an evo-bio type who is her mentor; she beats out Amal (Shravan Amin) for a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science where science and hedge funds meet. Jerry Krohl (Steven Richard) owns the place which is equipped with gyms as well as labs, and an old high school friend of Hilary's, Julia (Taysha Canales) teaches Pilates; her lover is another scientist, Ursula (Krista Apple-Hodge). Leo (Lindsay Smiling) runs Hilary's department, while Bo (Jeena Yi) is a young mathematician in love with Hilary. Gaby Bradbury makes a brief appearance as Jerry's daughter.
The austere white set, designed by Matt Saunders, and the evocative lighting designed by Thom Weaver, create atmospheres that shift between degrees of sterile. Michael Pedicin plays the sax during each scene change.
For Stoppard fans, The Hard Problem, his first play since Rock 'n' Roll, is not to be missed. It isn't as witty or as romantic as we have come to expect from his past work, but it has intellectual heft and grapples with big ideas as few plays do and as few playwrights can.
Wilma Theater, Broad & Spruce Sts. Through Feb.14. Tickets $25 first four weeks, $10 students. Information: wilmaatheater.org or 215-546-7824.