What is consciousness, and where does it come from? This is the central question Tom Stoppard confronts in his engaging play The Hard Problem now running at Main Street Theater.
Our heroine is Hilary, played by the wonderful Jessie Hyder. Hilary is a religious person studying cognitive psychology, and the unusual combination invites ridicule and contempt. Even more, a painful secret haunts and informs Hilary’s identity in ways that challenge the scientific “truths” surrounding her as we watch the character leave a university for a big-deal job at a think tank. Naturally, problems ensue.
I loved the actors who took on challenging roles with a lot of science speak. They created believable characters without overacting (which would be easy to do), and made me think about hard problems in a way that went beyond the Hard Problem. I similarly loved Liz Freese’s spot-on set designs, which efficiently went from dorm to dining to office within Main Street’s in-the-round, intimate space. I also enjoyed Victoria Nicolette Gist’s costumes that seemed plausible and fit the sensibilities of the characters. I even liked the British pop music that played between the acts.
I found Spike, the know-it-all brain scientist who sleeps with Hilary even though he cannot even begin to understand her spiritual sensibilities, to be completely insufferable—which indicates the actor nailed it. I hope to see B. Connor Flynn in the next big thing he appears in.
I also really admired the performance of Rhett Martinez as Jerry, the rich guy who does the hedge fund thing and sponsors the think tank where Hilary gets her job trying to do some kind of brain experiment on kids that measures how nice they are. (It’s the kind of social psychology thing that never makes me feel like social science is, well, a science, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Anyway, Hilary’s heart is in the right place as she tries to prove that heart is part of the brain, and so on. The domestic part of the drama is that she has a connection to big-talking Jerry that is connected to her past, and I won’t spoil it, but Jerry is not merely Jeff Bezos or something. He is a human, not just a big business stereotype. Martinez played this role exactly right. I also loved Dwight Clark as Leo, Hilary’s boss at the think tank. He nailed the job, sprinkling in humor and angst as needed. And Kallie Vinson, who plays his daughter Cathy, deserves big props for being about 12 and doing a beautiful job in her role on stage. Brava to her!
As for the plot, it’s kind of meandering, with conversations that would never take place on planet earth. There are coincidences that Stoppard dovetails with discussions of coincidences. I started to believe that science doesn’t have the corner on all knowledge, proving Hilary’s point that there are mysteries that we really cannot explain. I know this sounds like a lot, but Tom Stoppard doesn’t write for dummies, and you feel smarter for simply seeing this play.
Here I could wax eloquently in a glib and uniformed way about which “side” one should come down on in deciphering the answer to the play’s conceit, but I won’t. Let’s leave that to the think tanks. Instead, you should see this striking drama about how we cannot take the humanity out of science, no matter how hard we try. Stoppard’s play leaves us with the realization that the hard problem is not how consciousness works, or if we can “prove” that God is the author of it—we either believe that to be the case or not. The real dilemma is determining who you are going to spend your time with: those who are open to your heart and your beliefs, or those who claim to have it all figured out. Regardless of how you define the nature and origin of consciousness, I know who I would pick.
Thru Oct. 6. Tickets from $40. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. More info and tickets at mainstreettheater.com.