Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Review: The Hard Problem at Geary Theater

We have not been to San Francisco's Geary Theater in a while - as nothing recently playing really excited us. However, Inna was intrigued about the the concept behind "The Hard Problem" - a fairly recent (2015) play by Sir Tom Stoppard  (screenwriter for Shakespeare in Love) on the subject of consciousness.

How does consciousness come about? Is our identity the product of what Francis Crick calls “a vast assembly of nerve cells”? How much is human behavior the product of egoism or altruism?

Sir Tom Stoppard starts with an interesting central character, Hilary, who we meet as a psychology student at Loughborough University. She is competing for a coveted research spot with Amal (a genius graduate Indian student) to study consciousness at the famous Institute. Somehow, through luck and perseverance, she gets the nod for the research spot (over her academic superior Amal).

Hilary's role is well-acted by Ms. Brenda Meaney, who shows a number of interesting sides to her character. She is unusual in many ways: she has a hidden longing for the child she bore when she was 15 and gave up for adoption, and she prays to God, to the evident scorn of the brilliant scientific minds that surround her. Stoppard is suggesting consciousness cannot be explained in purely mechanistic terms (as Amal's character suggests) and that there are intrinsic values that depend on an overall moral intelligence.

Even more striking are the limitations of the scientific minds around her – in particular her occasional lover, Spike (played by Mr. Dan Clegg), who seems extremely intelligent but somehow deficient and aloof.

The play touches on a number of topics: scientific fraud, adoption, the nature of motherly love, and philanthropy - but does not really get to deep into any of them.

When Stoppard tries to return to the "Hard Problem" of consciousness, by letting Hilary and her brilliant math protege conduct a landmark scientific study, we get excited that something extraordinary is about to be revealed. The scientific study's initial premise - that all children start out good but decline morally as they become civilized  - is quite surprising. However, we are let down by the fact that Hilary's protege fudged some of the scientific data and the whole study is invalidated. Thus, the whole "Hard Problem" discussion is discarded and Stoppard moves on to other, lesser topics.

I was hoping that Sir Tom Stoppard would continue to explore consciousness, but he took the easy way out by digressing into other topics, such as the "nature of motherly love" (Hilary gets to meet her adopted daughter), and standard male-female relationship issues.

Thus, I didn't feel a sense of closure at the end of the play. Perhaps, the "Hard Problem" is truly too hard.