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 AN EXPERIMENT WITH AN AIR PUMP, now playing through August 25th by Backyard Renaissance is an intriguing and thought provoking exploration on scientific discovery, the cost in the pursuit of that knowledge, and a mystery to solve.

Set in a stately English home in Newcastle, where both families past and present have a healthy curiosity and zest for knowledge.  In 1799 the home belongs to Joseph Fenwick (Robert Smyth) and his unhappy wife Susannah (Susan Angelo) who feels she has been replaced by Joseph’s love of science. 

Photo Credit: Darren Scott

They have two daughters, Harriet (Caroline Keeler) and Maria (Olivia Cordell).  Maria is engaged and writes many letters to her fiancé Edward and serves as a bit of a narrator throughout the show as a result. Harriet wants to be a doctor like her father, and chafes under her Mother’s goal for her to be a poet.

Guests to the house are Thomas Armstrong (Francis Gercke) a coldly analytic scientist, while Peter Mark Roget (Justin Lang) is there to “understand the world”.  He does have a love of lists which foretells his future fame for the thesaurus. Isobel Birdie (Jessica John) is the spunky and well-spoken Scottish maid for the family, and who also has a sharp mind.

In 1999 we find that Ellen (Angelo) is the scientist to her husband Tom’s (Smyth) more literature and art based focus.  Her work will take her to a new opportunity of scientific discovery in genetic research, but Tom has moral issues with the research materials.

The weighty matters and discussions could be a too much to some, but this talented ensemble makes these energetic and thought provoking debates fun to watch.  Angelo and Smyth are dynamic as the marries pair in both time periods, John is fantastic as the spirited Isobelle, while Gercke is both coldly distant and friendly and funny in his dual roles.   

Directed by Richard Baird the play stays at a brisk pace, and emotions without feeling weighed down by all of its talking points. I

The title is taken from a 1767 painting by Joseph Wright explores that life and science cannot take place in a vacuum, and all decisions and actions have consequences.

The play has ambitious goals in discussing morality in science, research, and debate art, science, and literature.  The discussion is fascinating and the cast incredibly strong, but even that can’t disguise that this is a very talk heavy show.  It seems in order to make the point playwright Shelagh Stephenson opts to use a paragraph when a sentence would do, and it makes the show feel longer than necessary.

AN EXPERIMENT WITH AN AIR PUMP is an excellent production that leaves the audience with a lot fo think and discuss once the show is done.

AN EXPERIMENT WITH AN AIR PUMP is playing through August 25th at La Jolla Playhouse’s Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).  For ticket and showtime information go to www.

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