THE HARD PROBLEM Explores the Nature of Existence and Consciousness

THE HARD PROBLEM Explores the Nature of Existence and Consciousness

Pictured: Chaon Cross and Jürgen Hooper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Review: THE HARD PROBLEM at Court Theatre

By Elizabeth Ellis

Early in THE HARD PROBLEM, an adorable couple in bed, bathing in a post-coital glow, begins to discuss what other intellectuals might at such a giddy time: the brain, neurobiology, and the nature of consciousness. This juxtaposition of the fluidity of feelings and the absolution of the scientific method sets the tone for the rest of the play.

The titular “hard problem” addresses the eternal question of what consciousness is, where it resides, and does it exist separately from matter. Does consciousness indeed have a biological basis in the brain, or is it generated from something less quantifiable, something divine? Hilary (the radiant Chaon Cross), a young and up-and-coming psychology student, finds herself pulled in each direction. She spends years immersed in the rigors of science, yet her main interest is the study of altruism, and she kneels and prays every night (mostly that her now-teenage daughter, who she had at age 15 and gave up for adoption, is well and happy). Spike (Jurgen Hooper), Hilary’s arrogant mentor, tutor, and occasional lover, finds Hilary’s devotion to the non-scientific to be mildly amusing. You almost expect Spike to pat Hilary patronizingly on the head and say, “Aw, you and your belief system: you’re so cute.” As Hilary’s career progresses, she finds employment at the Krohl Institute, the scientific wing of an American billionaire hedge fund manager’s enterprises. There she faces even more pressure from the staff to produce “good” scientific results. Hilary then learns that research with a driven and inspired assistant (Emjoy Gavino) shows that even bulletproof scientific method can be played with (alternative facts, maybe?).

Charles Newell’s sharp and smart direction mines the humor that is a necessary release amid such wide-ranging intellectual concepts. The cast is superb — Chaon Cross, in a magnificent and complex performance, imbues Hilary with a compelling energy and physical grace. She shows every struggle that Hilary endures internally, with her present and potential love interests, and with her co-workers who she strives to impress. Jürgen Hooper’s Spike is regularly obnoxious and a jerk to Hilary, but Hooper deftly makes him oddly appealing. The wonderful supporting cast (Owais Ahmed, Celeste Cooper, Kate Fry, Gavino, Nathan Hosner, Brian McCaskill, and Sophie Thatcher) gives potentially one-dimensional scientists range, humor, and personality. John Culbert’s elegant and monochromatic set brings to mind a modern art museum, where the background serves not to offer any distractions but to focus attention on the art — here, it places the focus directly on the characters and their heady intellectual endeavors and discussions.

Tom Stoppard’s script poses many questions about the nature of existence and consciousness, but ultimately leaves the questions as a discussion, leaving you feeling cold and somewhat unfulfilled. However, this production is well worth seeing for Cross’ performance and the opportunity to continue to ask these questions again, and debate age-old concepts.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.