British playwright Shelagh Stephenson worked extensively creating monologues for radio and television broadcasts on the BBC until one of her pieces--the harrowing Find Kinds of Silence, about a sadistic husband and father whose daughters murder him after a lifetime of abuse--earned so much acclaim, folks made the connection that language that crackled and sparked across airwaves could be fanned to a small bonfire inside the confines of a theater. Silence was eventually staged, and Stephenson's first script written specifically for theatrical production, The Memory of Water, would seem to qualify her early in a dramatic career as a chronicler of fractured family experiences. The Memory of Water was a more pungent version of Hannah and Her Sisters, in which three sisters compare vastly different memories of childhood and adolescence at the funeral of their mother, who is wont to rise up from the coffin and address them dictatorially. The accolades continued to pour in for Stephenson's unsentimental take on domesticity, an appropriately "feminine" preoccupation for a woman writer.
With gleeful vigor, she ran that train off the track and wrote An Experiment With An Air Pump, a play about the clash between humanist philosophy and scientific research at the turn of both the 18th and 20th centuries. No sobbing sisters scarred by runaway bonfires in the hearth; and although there's a flash of family dysfunction here and there, it's often used for comic relief from lofty conjecture about the role of science in society. It comes down to one question: Is the sacred secular search for knowledge still valuable when its humanitarian element is stripped? I'm curious to know how Dallas Theater Center and director Richard Hamburger will fare this time with ticket buyers. DTC's Air Pump is by turns witty, blunt, ghoulish, angry, and apprehensive about the possibilities of 21st century biotechnical research. In 1999 England, Ellen (Caitlin O'Connell) is a researcher who specializes in genetic fetal abnormalities; she is asked by a wealthy corporation to help develop diagnostic tools from the ever-evolving human genome project. But can such information be controlled by individual patients, and is human life with the rough edges sanded away by science even a desirable thing? Rewind 200 years to a family in the same house, headed by Dr. Fenwick (Sam Tsoutvouvas), who believes scientific inquiry is only worth a damn if it's practiced with sympathy and concern. A young med student (Kevin Henderson) under his tutelage holds rather more draconian views about the then-nascent study of anatomy, and seduces the family's Scottish maid (Kate Goehring, in a lovely, unpathetic depiction of a tragic figure) because he wants her body--but not in the way most cads do.
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Structurally, not all the elements of An Experiment With An Air Pump work harmoniously, even if they succeed independently. Richard Hamburger was probably wise not to attempt to integrate, say, the ongoing gag about Dr. Fenwick's daughter Maria (Joanna Schellenberg) exchanging increasingly caustic love letters with a suitor who is subtly preparing to dump her. Schellenberg is luminous and hilarious, but her passages feel like comic interludes to allow us breathing space from the grave questions tackled by the others. Ditto a confrontation between Dr. Fenwick and his wine-soaked wife Susannah (O'Connell again) about their hollow marriage--as an example of professional passion taking a toll on a private relationship, it does echo the general philosophical quandary of how abstract scientists can get with their practice before the human element is canceled out. Caitlin O'Connor as Susannah convinces us that she's pouring out years worth of resentment in a few stage minutes, but playwright Stevenson has not drawn enough knowing connections between the household and the laboratory to make this scene feel organic. You can argue that Richard Hamburger should have hammered down a tone that would try to compensate for the gaps, but he has concentrated on eliciting tender and truthful performances, and even taken as fragmented parts of a whole, DTC's version should impress you with how it humanizes a monolithic endeavor that has only begun to make headlines.