Tom Stoppard dives into subjective reality with ‘The Hard Problem’

There are plenty of hard problems to be faced every day, but in philosophy “the hard problem” refers to a very specific challenge: Explaining how physical processes in the brain create our experience of reality. Tom Stoppard grapples with that question literally and metaphorically in his latest play, “The Hard Problem.” On stage at the Wilma Theater last month, he had the chance to confront the man who actually coined the term that gives the play its title, philosopher David Chalmers.

“I think that you’re conceding that what is really needed now is a radical new idea,” Stoppard mused at one point during the 90-minute discussion. ‘Perhaps you’ve got a couple you could mention?”

Chalmers couldn’t answer with any strange ideas that weren’t already confronted in Stoppard’s play, but the leather-jacketed philosopher did concede that his willingness to explore some of them was changing. Or, as he put it to laughter from the audience, “My standards for craziness have gradually evolved over time.”

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In order to direct Stoppard’s play, which will have its U.S. premiere at the Wilma beginning this week, Founding Artistic Director Blanka Zizka had to grapple with the hard problem in her own way. “Tom has been interested in the problem of consciousness for a while,” Zizka says. “He loves research and is an avid reader, so as a director you have to do some of that work in a much quicker time to catch up to him. I’m interested in the play because it deals with moral questions of who we are, how we act, and how we relate to the world around us. For the characters in the play, these ideas shape their lives.”

The play is about a 22-year-old psychology student applying for a position at a prestigious brain science institute while dealing with lingering personal issues from her past. Stoppard described the main character as “disturbed, worried, unhappy, or frustrated by a sense that the normal attempts to explain the difference between right and wrong seem to be incomplete.”

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“What she basically says,” he explains, “is that unless there is an overall moral intelligence of some nature, then we are grading our own homework.”

Back at the Wilma

“The Hard Problem” is the twelfth production of Stoppard’s work that the Wilma has produced in its 40-year history, becoming one of the country’s most insightful interpreters of the playwright’s work.

Stoppard is spending more time than usual with the company for this show, which Zizka says has been invaluable “because you see him in action. You see his sense of humor, you hear his phrasing and his reaction to things. He’s an amazing craftsman in terms of writing, but he also takes on important causes. He really deals with the world around him and the Wilma is a theater that wants to be engaged with the world around us.”

If you go

“The Hard Problem”

Jan. 13-Feb. 6

Wilma Theater

265 S. Broad St.

$25, 215-546-7824

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