Don’t be late to An Experiment With an Air Pump. If you’re not on time, people will notice.
Although the play takes place at Western Washington University’s roomy Performing Arts Center Mainstage, all the action, including seating, happens on the stage itself, and audience-goers must head backstage to traverse a short labyrinth of dark hallways to reach the rows of bleachers.
This works to the advantage of the drama, as it creates an immediate intimacy that demands those in attendance pay close attention to what’s happening onstage.
Named after Englishman Joseph Wright’s 1768 painting, “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump,” the play takes place in two different centuries in the same house. The years, respectively, are 1799 and 1999, and the theatrical action happens on the cusp of two radically different centuries.
While there’s a mystery in the house that draws the time travel together, it’s not the focal point of the production, which was written by English playwright Shelagh Stephenson. Instead, both families, and their visitors, are dealing with moral qualms relating to science, medical research and gender roles.
In the earlier century, a physician named Fenwick wants to change the world. His wife and daughters aren’t very happy with the state of things, as they feel unsure of their roles in society. When they’re joined by two other scientists—one a reasonable young man in love with words and another who soon reveals himself to be an unfeeling cad—a few days before New Year’s Eve, it’s not long before a misshapen servant girl becomes either a love interest or an experiment.
Meanwhile, in 1999, a geneticist named Ellen struggles with decisions over both selling the old house and also taking a new job that involves stem cell research. Her husband, an English lecturer who’s lost his job, is depressed and at odds with Ellen’s prospective employer.
“The characters seem to unwind themselves before us, peeling back their layers to reveal their different truths and ideologies and forcing us to consider opposing perspectives on their particular issues,” director Charlotte Guyette explains in the liner notes for the play. “It explores science through a very human port.”
Although you’ll have to show up to see how the two centuries come together, be assured that the cast—many of whom play two different roles—are on top of things. Their English accents are fully believable, as are the emotions they bring to the stage. The set is a beautiful experiment unto itself, and you’ll be glad you’re close enough to see its intricacies. Just be on time, and settle in for some quality storytelling. You’ll be glad you did.
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