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Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem Asks What Makes Us Truly Human? [UPDATED]

Connor Flynn as Spike and Jessie Hyder as Hilary in Tom Stoppard's The Hard Place at Main Street Theater.
Connor Flynn as Spike and Jessie Hyder as Hilary in Tom Stoppard's The Hard Place at Main Street Theater.
Phot by Pin Lim / Forest Photography
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Update 9-25-19: Performances of The Hard Problem have been extended through October 13.

It is in many ways a tougher equation to solve than all the computations at the highest level of math. Why are we conscious rather than not? What does it take to meet all the criteria for being conscious — and is science enough to explain it all? 

The Hard Problem is the newest work by Tom Stoppard, written about nine years after The Coast of Utopia, and weighty matters are once again on the Tony Award-winning playwright's mind in this regional premiere by Main Street Theater.

Rebecca Greene Udden, Main Street's artistic director, readily admits she was disappointed when she saw a National Theatre Live broadcast of the play in a Houston movie theater. "I thought this play is really cold and I wasn't very interested in it."

But then someone brought her a copy of the script and Udden realized that while the production she saw may have been cold, this was not a bad play at all. "It was actually very human and very moving." And she decided she wanted to bring to Houston.

"It's a little bit odd for Stoppard because he gets into some questions about God and it's not something he usually treats," she says.

As the play begins, there’s a young woman Hilary, a psychology researcher, who applies for a job at a big brain institute. "She's kind of an unlikely fit because she’s pure psychology and they do brain science. They're interested in matter and she's interested in the mind.

"Science can take us so far in understanding how our brain works but it can't tell us why we're conscious,"  Udden says. "That's what she's interested in."

The play is contemporary, taking place over five years before moving into present day. The setting is a small university and then London.

There are a lot of new faces among the eight-member cast, Udden says. "It's a young cast with a lot of younger people," she says, specifically mentioning Connor Flynn as Spike and Jessie Hyder as Hilary.  "One of the features of the play is that both of the young men are jerks. I wanted to avoid the 'men bad, women good.' So I looked for guys that while they could be arrogant did have some warmth to them."

The script includes a lot of references to finance, psychology and brain science so Udden says she brought in John Lienhard of Engines of Our Ingenuity on National Public Radio to help decipher some of the concepts. 

The play does delve into questions about spirituality, whether there is a soul, is God involved. But Udden says whether you believe in God or not, "there's all kinds of things you'll leave thinking about."

At it's heart, though, Udden says "It’s really a sweet story. There’s a very personal story that I’m not going to give away. But it’s really a sweet story."

What this play says to her, Udden says, "Is that human consciousness — whether or not you believe in God or a supreme being or a creator — that human consciousness, our ability to conceptualize and to have emotions and to think, is nothing short of miraculous. Evolution will take us so far. The fact that we can be human in the way that we are human is miraculous."

Beyond that, asked why anyone should attend Udden says: "It's Tom Stoppard."

Performances are scheduled for September 14 through October 6 13 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36-$55.

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