Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem is an ordinary melodrama disguised as an intellectual exercise. The settings — in academia and at a brain science institute — are smartly dressed up distractions. There are numerous, often heady discussions that revolve around human behavior, our motivations and what it means to be altruistic or selfish. Wisely, the playwright stands Hillary (Brenda Meaney) at the center of the story. Even though she’s a psychologist at a prestigious institute, Hillary, in a white lab coat, wears her heart on its sleeve.
After some fifty plus years of playwriting, Stoppard knows exactly how to bring the audience along with him from the first exchange of dialogue. The play begins with a first date between a man and a woman who sound like sparring partners at a debate. Part of the attraction is a willingness to hear each other out, even if they mainly disagree.
Spike (Dan Clegg) is Hillary’s academic advisor and a scientist. At first, they seem like a good, if imperfect match for each other. But after they’ve consummated their affair in the second scene, it’s a great relief to find out the play isn’t going to be about them. Stoppard makes short shrift of the romance, upending our expectations, his concern quickly turning to establishing Hillary’s professional life.
Those first scenes are smartly constructed. They provide just the right amount of background detail for her character. It’s of no small consequence that Spike sees Hillary praying before she gets into bed. She is anguished about something but Stoppard withholds the reason why. Without spelling it out, we sense that her daylight ambitions are fueled by the thing that brings her to her knees at night.
Landing on her feet at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, we’re introduced to a busy moving cast of supporting characters. Carey Perloff directs the scenes at Hillary’s new job with great comedic flair and energy. The set designs, flooded with white light, move on and off from stage left and right, making use of the cavernous space. The Krohl Institute appears to be a mythical place like Dr. Eldon Tyrell’s sky high office in Blade Runner. It’s named after the hands-on benevolent billionaire Jerry Krohl (Mike Ryan). Hillary begins her working life there with the help of Leo (Anthony Fusco) an attentive boss and, later, an eager to please assistant named Bo (Narea Kang).
As Hillary and Bo collaborate on a study about childhood behavior, it becomes clear why Hillary has been pursuing her particular line of psychological research. As a teenager, she gave up a daughter for adoption. This comes as almost no surprise as Stoppard lines up the revelation in such an orderly way. Hillary confesses her teenaged pregnancy to Julia (Safiya Fredericks), a co-worker and friend from high school. Krohl’s daughter Cathy (Carmen Steele), who we’ve already met on stage, is the same age as the daughter HIllary gave up.
Suddenly, Hillary’s prayers make sense, as does the humane approach she takes to her work. The scientists in her life, the mathematicians, all find fault with psychology. They consider it a pseudo-science. But she fervently believes that psychology can solve “the hard problem,” the consciousness of an individual. Even they can’t account for it. Each time she raises the question to Spike, it’s the only scientific argument that baffles and shuts him up.
Defining the meaning of consciousness, however, isn’t the only hard problem the play contends with. What will Hillary’s response be when she figures out that Cathy is, in fact, her daughter? Stoppard’s play is nothing if not an investigation into an individual’s psychology, Hillary’s subjective experience of something lost and then found. Stoppard solves his own hard problem with words — he transforms the everyday language his characters use into something like music. The actors universally read their lines with an ease and enjoyment, as if, no matter the part, they’d lucked out with the dialogue. The Hard Problem, although predetermined — some might say tidy; I’d say clean — is a pleasurable defense of art as a reasonable method of inquiry to suss out the state of one woman’s soul.
The Hard Problem, through Nov. 13, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary, act-sf.org.