Lost its Consciousness and its Heart

By Iride Aparicio

Photos: By Kevin Berne

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – One definition of the noun Consciousness, is one’s personal and collective identity. When a play loses its “Consciousness” it means   its theme. As a play, “THE HARD PROBLEM” the latest work of Author, Screenwriter, Playwright, Czech-Born British Playwright Sir TOM STOPPARD, fits the definition.

The first work, written by STOPPARD after a nine years  hiatus in writing, “THE HARD PROBLEM” which opened at the A.C.T. Theatre in S.F. on October 26, is the moving story of  Hilary Mathews, a young PHD in psychology struggling to understand her own life by questioning the believes of the academicians at the Krohl Institute of Brain Science, where she works. At their lab the cientists are studying The Conscious  using monkeys’ brains, and mice, hitting their retinas by light protons and proving their brains with lasers, in their horrible lab experiments.  Hilary is troubled not only by the lab's methods, but by the Electrical Shots given to people and the questionnaires to try to answer the questions “THE HARD PROBLEM” has presented to the scientific world. Hilary is aware that her own believe in God, in miracles and prayer and in the human soul, would make her unemployable in the psychology's world

Pictured below, Hilary (BRENDA MEANEY)
the_hard_problem_01.jpgIn a published interview in “Words on Plays”, DAVID CHALMER, a mathematician with interests in Metaphysics, Epistemology, the Philosophy of language and the person who coined the phrase “The Hard Problem” describes it as a seemingly unanswerable question, because science still ignores how a physical objective brain can create the ineffable subjective experience that is consciousness. CHALMER explains that some scientists oppose reducing the consciousness to physical processes in the brain, but that others oppose reducing morality to a by product of evolution.

“The HARD PROBLEM” the play, may be described as a tour de force exploring fundamental questions. Sadly, it presents too many.

For the audience to be able to understand the esoterical every day dialogue of the two main characters in the play:  Hilary (BRENDA MEANEY) and Spike (DAN CLEGG) her lover and tutor in math, it requires that the audience is familiar with subjects from Philosophy, Psychology, Neurobiology, Artificial Intelligence, cognitive Conscience and religion. After a few minutes listening to the characters’ dialogue, that some of us can not fully understand because we are not  familiar with some of the discussed subjects, we become annoyed. A few minutes later, we forget the characters' conversation and start thinking of the broad scientific knowledge of the playwright who wrote about  taxonomy, philosophy, politic, and murder mysteries, and wonder how could he expect his audience to understand what he is talking about in the play.

The characters in the play are interesting, but sadly, we don’t learn much about them. The only one that could be defined as tri-dimensional is Hilary (MEANEY). From her past,  we learn that she hides a “secret.” At present, she has Spike, her lover. In her future, she has a job interview.

About a Spike’s private life, we learn nothing, except that he is Hilary’s lover and her mathematics tutor. We do not understand either the reason why Spike, instead of discussing subjects such as: “How irrationality is not controllable through algorithms and human behavior and could not possible be captured by math,” prefers to dwell into Psychological and Biological subjects talking  with the Psychology PHD in such an authoritarian manner that gives us the impression that he delights in putting her down.

Listening to their discussions, with Hilary believing in one thing and Spike in another,  it is difficult for the audience to understand how these two characters, who portrayed in the play, have no chemistry among them and do not even get along, could possible be in love. While Hilary, as portrayed in this play, is lovely, Spike’s domineering behavior towards her, makes him offensive.  


We follow Hilary to her interview at the Krohl Institute of Brain Science where she meets Amal (VANDIT BHATT) pictured above with her, an Indian with a degree in Math doing work in Biophysics and Neurobiology,  who is also being interviewed by Dr. Reinhart, Jerry (MIKE RYAN). As a mathematician, Amal, introduces the audience to new terminology: Hedge Funds Banking, Finances, Regulations,Capital Management in banking and the term Altruism.

Later on, at the Institute, we meet two of the scientists, Leo (ANTHONY FUSCO) and Jerry (RYAN) who owns the institute with his family, which includes his adopted daughter Cathy (CARMEN STEELE). We meet Julia (SAFIYA FREDERICKS) A woman who attended school with Hilary, and now teaches Pilatos exercises at the institute. Elaine (JULIE ADAMO) a human “guinea Pig” who receives electric shocks to test the experiments. Ursula (STACY ROSS) another scientist, y Bo,  NAREA KANG a graduate student in math. In more hodgepodge discussions of the mind and the cognitive conscience, we are shown the friction among the researchers, when they discuss their theories with each other. We also learn that Physics explains Chemistry, that chemistry explains biology and that biology explains part of psychology.

Under the direction of CAREY PERLOFF, the acting, of all the actors is realistic, with Hilary, practically the only character in the play who shows different emotions, acting her difficult role masterfully.  If for the actors, learning the Scientific terminology that they use in their dialogue was difficult, their mastery in their trade made it sound “natural” for them. We should add that the acting in this play is superb.


The Cast of THE HARD PROBLEM presented at A.C.T.

The play’s surprising ending, may be interpreted as "a coincidence," or as a “miracle." A proof of the existence of God. We critics may also define it as "the play’s premise." (if for this play to have a premise was intended by the playwright) 

The problem with STOPPARD's new play, |THE HARD PROBLEM" is that he leads the audience on a rendezvous of several branches of brain science and theories in a QUEST, but never answers the so called "HARD PROBLEM' question at the end of his play. We believe that the reason why STOPPARD was unable to answer the question was, that according to CHALMER (who was the cientist who named (with a reason) the question "the hard problem,") is that as of today, nobody has the answer and it may not be found for centuries".

And while the characters in STOPPARD's play are interesting, and can regurgitate at random a series of scientific terms perfectly, most of them remain unknown to us so we are unable to care for them. Because of it, we will define "THE HARD PROBLEM" the play as "An intellectual work based on many theories related to the mind, that in its endless discussions of the conscious, lost its heart."

THE HARD PROBLEM will continue playing at the A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, until November 13. For tickets you can go online to or order them by phone by calling: 415-749-2228.