Photo: Sarah Gliko as Hilary in Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem.” Photo courtesy of The Wilma Theater.
For its first production of 2016, The Wilma Theater, a Knight Arts grantee in Philadelphia, will get heady with the U.S. premiere of playwright Tom Stoppard’s newest play, “The Hard Problem,” on Jan. 13. This scientifically psychological drama leans heavily into concepts of brain research and cognitive philosophy, from which Stoppard draws much of his source information for the characters’ struggle with wrapping their minds around themselves. Even the title of the play is a grab from philosopher David Chalmers’ name for the question of consciousness. Hilary (played by Sarah Gliko) is a 22-year-old psychology student applying to the renowned Krohl Institute for Brain Science. She begins to explore the blurred lines between science and psychology with her associates and her sometimes-lover Spike as she prays for strength during this trying time, and questions of ethics begin to arise. Where is the line between consciousness and gray matter? The human mind and the human brain? Soon a debate begins about the nature of altruism, and whether it even exists. “There’s a moment of discontinuity where form—brain activity—becomes content,” Stoppard describes, “and that is our mystery; it’s what makes us human.” Prompting Stoppard to dig even deeper into the questions at hand, the mysteries of humans’ animal nature and their self-professed power beyond mere biology, weigh heavily on both director and audience throughout the action. Instead of focusing on the past lives of the characters in his play, the tension instead emerges from the clashing ideological differences between the individuals. Anyone who has gotten in over their head at a family dinner, a bar or merely a political Facebook post knows the danger of ideological arguments, but here the problem lies not in political affiliation, but in our very nature. With such complex ideas, the use language is very important in the play, and so is its musicality. For instance, as Hilary grapples with a past decision, the frozen moment in time that tugs at her conscience is joined by a live saxophone player, Michael Pedicin, who performs onstage with her. “This musician becomes Hilary’s observer, inner voice, sorrow and hope— her consciousness,” explains director Blanka Zizka. As music is music’s power, this personification helps to expand on Chalmers’ “hard problem” and provide a rooted, emotional core for the audience in an otherwise intellectually challenging landscape. “The Hard Problem” runs from Jan. 11 through Feb. 2. Tickets are available now online, by calling the box office (215-546-7824) or visiting the theater (265 S. Broad St., Philadelphia).