Scientific discovery meets moral dialectics

Review of TheaterCNU’s production “An Experiment with an Air Pump”

On Friday, Oct. 4, TheaterCNU premiered “An Experiment with an Air Pump,” a play written by Shelagh Stephenson and directed by Denise Gillman. The play focuses on ethical dilemmas in terms of scientific research throughout the timeline of humankind. Set between two different time periods of 1799 and 1999, the story follows two families mesmerized by scientific discovery, though morality is always in question due to the nature of their research. Just around New Years Eve, the audience sees both families within the same house in Newcastle, England as the play transitions between the two time periods. Though 200 years apart, the two families are bonded by a dark mystery that the audience must figure out as the story progresses. 

The stage is structured like the inside of an upper-middle class English home, with wooden accents and paintings in almost every corner. The warm candle-lighting displayed a mysterious and dramatic setting that lured me in. In regards to the scenes, the placing of the lighting was beautifully positioned in order to dramatize the characters reactions and emotions increasingly. The staircase played a striking theatrical role as characters entered, left and would overall present themselves on stage. I believe the staircase was constructed as a gateway to understand the characters’ true thoughts and mentalities, as they stomped off in anger or even overheard what was meant to be a secret conversation.

“An Experiment with an Air Pump” begins with a tribute to the painting the play was written for and inspired by. The piece, “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump,” is a 1768 oil painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. Each individual character surrounds the experiment on the air pump, and watches in nervous excitement as the product of discovery begins. Ellen (Autumn Laverne), a scientist from the 1999 timeline, introduces the audience to the play with a brief monologue discussing the portrayed characters on the canvas now onto the stage, who are members of the Fenwick family.

Throughout the play, I noticed that the family has intricate attributes that contrast one another’s personality traits. The diversity of distinct personalities are thoroughly shown; not one character is the same, and surely the audience, like myself, had a character in mind they found themselves able to relate to. 

committed scientist and whom serves as patriarch of the family whose passions no longer extend out to his wife Susannah (Cate Wells). Suzannah’s unhappiness leads her to drink heavily and retaliate against his insensitive behavior as it progresses throughout the show. The rest of the household is occupied by their two always-at-war daughters, Maria (Dani Jansen) and Harriet (Charlie Grass), a hunchbacked Scottish servant, Isobel (Katie Murphy), and two physicians, Roget (Kaz Johnstone) and Armstrong (Noah Long).

Two hundred years later in the same house, the 1799 family’s house is under renovation due to Ellen being offered a position doing pre-embryonic research with a fellow geneticist, Kate (Caroline Tucker). Kate speaks to the importance of the research to benefit humanity, while the ethical matter is troubling to Ellen’s spouse, Tom (Jack Little). Tom is an unemployed English professor who is unable to support himself and his wife financially, though he doesn’t let that matter get the best of him. 

Nevertheless, the ethical considerations behind Ellen’s research inquiry pose the question of whether it is commendable to research fertilized pre-embryonic cells that won’t have a humanistic chance for diagnostic purposes, is challenged by Tom. This moral discussion reflects a similar one in 1799: whether to use bodies robbed from graves to do research. This obsession of a disregard for the dead for the purpose of research was infamous for scientists, especially for one particular character in the play. 

As “An Experiment with an Air Pump” progresses, the advancement of humanity and scientific research becomes more diverse. The mystery of life is challenged every day, which was apparent in the character Phil (Ty Norris), the builder in charge of the house’s renovation. Phil represents the comedic and marvelous appreciation for scientific exploration and research, but showcases how extensive the area can be, especially in regards of controversial methods. Norris acts out his character with a light in his eyes, but when Ellen states that her area of expertise is in genetics, his eyes dim. I appreciated how the play involved a more serious research study rather than more prone to be comical topics like “aliens” or “alternate universes.” 

I admire the comparison between Ellen and Suzanne, whereby the two represent how gender roles have changed shape throughout 200 years. Due to Savannah’s high-class background as a young adult, she is whisked away to be married off to Fenwick and secure his bloodline and wealthy status. The aggravation she intertwines in conversation around her husband reflects her passion-less marriage, and the disowning of her artistic passion for the arts in order to become a mother of status. As the scenes set in 1999 revolve into the play, we see Ellen, a strong scientist who is able to express her passion for science with no expectations or barriers. Her husband is the one who is unable to offer financial support, which flips the gender roles in contrast to the relationships in 1799. 

The play focuses a lot on the contrast between the two years on humanity’s timeline and the focus of people. For dramatism purposes, it was exquisite to see how the English language has evolved over 200 years. Roget showcases the intricate dialect of the 18th century, particularly since it is a fascination of his. Out of the whole play, Roget is the only character based on a real person, Peter Mark Roget, who was a British physician who also created Roget’s Thesaurus due to his hobby. 

In psychological terms, it was interesting to see how mental illness and scientific fascination interconnected with one another within the play. Seeing how that played out throughout “An Experiment with an Air Pump” was a rollercoaster to say the least. 

As a “story about people,” it explores all sorts of topics that any particular audience would enjoy, like philosophy, language, psychology, history, politics, romance, sociology and so much more. I would highly recommend seeing “An Experiment with an Air Pump” during its last weekend at Christopher Newport from Oct. 11-13 — it is emotionally engaging and a true dramatic piece produced by TheaterCNU’s talented cast and production team.

~Ashley McMillan, A&E Editor~

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