Whether acting or directing, whatever Richard Baird does, he does it to perfection. Case in point, he is currently directing “An Experiment With An Air Pump” by Shelagh Stephenson for Backyard Renaissance Company’s second production at the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre on the UC Campus in La Jolla through Sept. 1st and it’s a winner.
Four -year old Backyard Renaissance Theatre is currently the resident theater chosen for the 2018-19 year to use the La Jolla Playhouse’s facility and all the tools that come with it.
Other BYR productions have been mounted in smaller spaces in and around the San Diego area. The history of their successes has been nothing less than exemplary.
‘Air Pump' is the most ambitious… and it is a hit!
The 1768 15x12 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (of a natural philosopher conducting an experiment) sets the stage for the story as introduced by Susannah (a marvelous Susan Angelo) who remembers the painting as a child of thirteen: “this painting set my heart racing, it made the blood tingle in my veins: I wanted to be a scientist.”
The play is set between 1799 and 1999, at the turn of two centuries. The family home in New Castle on Tyne, belongs to Joseph Fenwick (Robert Smyth) a physician who wants to change the world and is very vocal about his opinions.
|Justin Lang and Jessica John|
His wife Susannah (excellent Ms. Angelo) their two daughters, Harriet (Caroline Keeler and Maria (Oliver Cordell), their maid Isobel (Jessica John) and two house- guests, both physicians, Armstrong (Francis Gercke), who is interested in the human body and Roget (Justin Lang, a physician who wants to understand the world, complete the seven-member -exceptional cast.
Fenwick, the quintessentially wonderful Robert Smyth, who is deeply immersed in medical research has neglected his wife Susannah, who was a poet in her past life but neglected by lack of affection has led her to drink. Any affection that was once is as acid as tasting as cheap wine. She pushes her two daughters (one reluctantly) to study the arts; perhaps write a play.
Harriet is on board, but wants to be a scientist like her father and is doing this to please her mother. Maria is in the middle of a meltdown spurned by long distance letter writing companion and her head is elsewhere.
Scottish maid Isobel (spot on Jessica John), who is a hunchback, plays a key role, as one of the props in the Fenwick children’s’ play (she is a goat) but more importantly, she becomes the object of Armstrong’s interest and affection if not cruelty that turns the tables in the long run, from hope to murder- mystery.
|Jessica John and Francis Gercke|
It doesn’t go unnoticed by Roget who is dismayed by Armstrong’s deception even though, as Armstrong explains, his attention is more for scientific than sexual.
In 1999 the discovery of human bones by workman Phil (Gercke) buried underneath the floor of the once Fenwick’s now to be sold or remodeled home by the now new owners, Tom (Smyth) and his wife Ellen (Angelo) become a sort of detective story that bounces back to 1799 where it all began and Stephenson begins to fill in the blanks and unravel the pieces set into motion two centuries ago.
|Susan Angelo and Robert Smyth|
The 1999 modern day couple are on the verge of making big decisions about their futures; Ellen a now a genetic researcher and Tom, retired and feeling like an extra cog on a wheel, cannot fathom Ellen’s research on embryos. He thinks it’s unethical and delves into their own personal losses as a reminder of the grief such research can visit. She is more optimistic sighting the hope it can bring to science and young couples.
She has been offered a huge position to do genetic research with her friend Kate’s (an excellent Caroline Keeler as Harriet and Kate) research company. They go back and forth on the reasons she should/not take the job. Ellen hopes he will find something meaningful as a history professor and lecturer as he was before he, ahem, found himself to be a dinosaur.
|Cast of An Experiment With An Air Pump|
With more questions than answers about ethical decisions in experimenting with human life, science and art, the nature of humanity, the responsibilities that come with those studies, stem-cell research, genetics and what they can tell us and why we need them or not, the impact of historical events, gender roles in both centuries and religion; how it fits into the whole picture of man’s thinking is a whole lot to absorb in one sitting.
As mentioned above, with deft direction by Baird and a skilled and engaged cast and clever and nuanced dialogue, yours truly was completely engrossed and absorbed in in the whole experiment.
Shout outs to lighting designer Joel Britt, costume designer Jeanne Reith, scenic and properties to Tony Cuczella, sound designer TJ Fucella and woman of many talents Vanessa Dinning dialect instructor. When these ears can understand many dialects, we’re in good shape.
|Robert Smyth, Justin Lang and Francis Gercke|
Nothing less than two thumbs up in recommending “An Experiment With An Air Pump”, with Backyard Renaissance.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Sept. 1st.
Organization: Backyard Renaissance Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: UC San Diego, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla.
Ticket Prices: $18.00-$35.00
Venue: La Jolla Playhouse’s Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre
Photo: Daren Scott