AN EXPERIMENT WITH AN AIR PUMP
by Shelagh Stephenson
Directed by B.J. Jones
9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie / (847) 673-6300
Reviewed by JT Bowen
Originally published in CENTERSTAGE.NET www.centerstage.net
There are burning questions at the heart of Shelagh Stephenson’s latest play, now playing at Northlight. Set simultaneously at the end of the 18th and 20th centuries, An Experiment with an Air Pump gives even the least political among us a lot to think about. It is an astonishing play.
According to the Director’s Notes, Ms. Stephenson always wanted to write a play that takes place in two different time periods, but set in the same room. Good idea, but I wonder if she had any idea what she would end up with? What she did end up with is an extremely thought provoking tragic comedy with a bit of mystery thrown in. Ms. Stephenson set An Experiment with an Air Pump at the ends of the 18th and 20th centuries because of the similarities in attitudes between the two times. In 1799, they were on the brink of the Industrial Revolution, and the possibilities for genetics research today are astonishing. It is New Year’s Eve 1999. Ellen (Peggy Dunne) and her husband Tom (Craig Spidle) have sold their home in England, a home that has been in Ellen’s family for centuries. As they pack the last of their things, we discover that Ellen is wrestling with a decision whether or not to take a better paying job in her field – genetic research. Research with pre-embryos no less. The play then goes back to New Year’s Eve, 1799, where physician and scientist Joseph Fenwick (also played by Spidle) is conducting an experiment to test the resiliency of a dove when deprived of air. The moral dilemma presented in the earlier time mirrors that of the present day, and as the play progresses, and we go back to 1999, Tom discovers a box of human female bones that have been in the house for two centuries.
Director B.J. Jones has taken on quite a challenge with this play, and he has succeeded completely. He and his actors have obviously talked in depth about the many issues this play raises. Ms. Stephenson’s play does not gloss over issues; it confronts some awful truths and makes us the only witnesses to a horrific act of violence.
Every performance in this show is excellent, especially Peggy Dunne – teetering on the edge as Susannah Fenwick and admirably strong as Ellen. Mark Montgomery beautifully plays the ruthless cad Thomas Armstrong and Phil, the sensitive builder, and Ana Sferruzza gives a heartbreaking performance as Isobel, the Fenwick’s deformed servant.
It’s hard to talk about An Experiment with an Air Pump without ruining too many moments. It is an intelligent, sensitive, tragic play that is a must-see for the new theatre season.
An Experiment with an Air Pump runs through November 5.