In Tom Stoppard’s dense but sparkling 1993 work, a precocious young student intuits in 1809 that everything in nature can be represented by a mathematical formula. Later, she teases out the basics of the second law of thermodynamics years before it’s officially formulated. At the top of the play, though, her concerns lie elsewhere. “What is carnal embrace?” Thomasina (Hilary Williams, brimming with sleepy-eyed appeal) asks her tutor, Septimus Hodge (a rakish Billy Fenderson). Science and sex, Arcadia suggests, are inseparably intertwined.
Stoppard bounces back and forth between the Sidley Park estate of Thomasina and Septimus’s time, when the grounds are buzzing with gossip about the visiting (but unseen) Lord Byron, and the same house in the present day, where a pair of warring scholars set up camp among the family’s modern descendants. One writing about the history of the English garden, the other on Byron’s trail, they try to piece together the evidence the earlier inhabitants left behind.
Amid nearly three hours of heady talk encompassing physics, poetry, mathematics and landscape architecture, Stoppard cleverly comments on the futility of our desire for order in the universe. In his rush to publish, cocksure egotist Bernard (Dan Granata) wildly misinterprets the facts as they play out in the earlier century, while the pragmatic Hannah (a terrific Marsha Harman) finds her search for an elusive historical hermit becoming improbably enlaced with Bernard’s Byronic quest. Jessica Hutchinson’s handsome, well-paced production deftly lays out the dual time lines, with stellar work by a pitch-perfect ensemble keeping the plot—unlike the universe—from succumbing to entropy.