Over the course of the last 20 years, the Wilma Theater has become synonymous with Tom Stoppard in Philadelphia. When “The Real Thing” begins previews this week, it will mark the 10th Stoppard play produced at the Wilma since co-founder and artistic director Blanka Zizka directed “Travesties” in 1994.
“Both Jiri and I loved Tom Stoppard’s work and would basically fight over which production we would be directing,” says Zizka, referring to the Wilma’s late co-founder, Jiri Zizka. “That was unusual because we had quite different taste in writers, but we fell in love with Stoppard’s wit and ideas.”
The Wilma’s founders also share with the playwright their roots in what was then Czechoslovakia. Born in 1937, Stoppard left the country with his family at the age of two, fleeing the Nazi occupation and eventually settling in Britain. “I think that’s why he took the Wilma under his wing,” Zizka says. “Once he found out we were Czechs, he really gave us his time and supported us. He had an amazing journey.”
“The Real Thing,” which will be directed by David Kennedy, originally premiered in London in 1982. The play explores themes of love and infidelity through the lives of a playwright and his actress wife, and the ways that their offstage lives intersect with their fictional roles. “What I think is quite timely in our culture right now is his questioning what is the ‘real thing’ in love, in art, in truth, in ideology,” Zizka says. “Asking the question of what is real in the form of theater, which is probably one of the most artificial forms you can find, creates an interesting dissonance.”
The Wilma/Stoppard relationship is already set to continue next season, when Zizka will direct the same group of actors in both “Hamlet” and in Stoppard’s 1966 breakthrough, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”
“I think what is always so exciting about working on Stoppard’s plays is that he writes in order to learn something new,” Zizka says. “That’s why he researches a play for three years before he writes it. So if you’re directing one of his plays you kind of have to follow in his footsteps and do that research, so you’re constantly learning something new. That’s very exciting. It’s not ever a typical domestic drama.”
“The Real Thing”
May 21-June 22
Oopening night May 28
265 South Broad St.