“Air Pump” ties centuries of science

Ian Brinksman, staff writer

Upon learning the Mason Players’ current season would be named the “Season of Innovation,” School of Theater Performance faculty member and show director Mary Lechter knew she had the perfect play.

“I’ve been a big fan of ‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’ for years,” Lechter said. “It’s a play that deals with gender equality in science and medicine, ethics and the intersection of arts and sciences. What a great opportunity to do it!”

While these weighty themes sound ambitious, they are only just scratching the surface of Shelagh Stephenson’s award winning play. Written in 1997, “An Experiment with an Air Pump” takes place in a single English house, separated by 200 years of history. Set in both 1799 and 1999, the characters discuss the complex medical questions of the day. Despite two centuries of innovation, both sets of characters face similar questions.

“I spotted a lot of similarities between 1799 and 1999,” actor and senior theater major Kathleen Barth said. “I think the most important parallel between the two sets of characters is they both realize their actions can help mankind. But not without first asking some tough questions.”

Barth plays Ellen, a geneticist in 1999 with an interest in studying pre-embryos.

“Ellen struggles with some of the potential consequences of her research,” Barth said. “While it could lead to the eradication of a terrible disease, it could also mean future parents terminating pregnancies because fetuses have one of those diseases. It’s that type of balance we explore.”

Gender also plays an important role in this production.

“One of the first things I noticed early on: all the scientists in 1799 were men,” Rebecca Wahls, senior theater major, said. Wahls plays Isobel, a Scottish maid living during that early time period. “They were interested in using science to control the world and were fairly dismissive to the women. But in 1999, all the scientists are now women, and they are much more interested in using science to aid in reproductive rights. I thought this was a really interesting dichotomy.”

Despite the serious themes explored in the play, do not assume it is without levity.

“It was honestly one of the most interesting and engaging plays I’ve ever read. I absolutely tore through the script, which isn’t always the case,” Wahls said. “All the characters are really interesting and relatable. It would be impossible for a Mason student not to find at least one they didn’t see themselves in.”

Far from the notion that theater is a dying art, plays can still tap into topics that are timely and relatable to modern audiences.

“You see a lot of similarities between the characters and yourself. This is why I love theater,” senior theater major and stage manager Gabbie Lavoie said. “Good plays should make the audience think and should make them ask questions. How does this apply to me? How does this apply to our society today? I think this play asks a lot of those questions, plus it’s also hilarious!”

Photos by Johannah Tubalado