Court Theatre Presents THE HARD PROBLEM – A Brainy Exploration of Consciousness

Court Theatre Presents Chicago Premiere of Stoppard Play

Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem, now receiving its Chicago premiere at The Court Theatre, asks a variety of hard questions. It also offers few answers, leaving the audience pondering its themes and ideas long after they leave the theater. The play’s title refers to science’s limitations at explaining the concept of consciousness. While neurobiology can explain the mechanisms and trace where activity occurs in three pounds of grey matter, it comes up short at explaining why we attribute various emotional qualities to our experiences and perceptions. Early in the play, Hilary, played with commitment and a vulnerable emotional range by Chaon Cross, says to her colleague-and-sometimes-boyfriend, Spike (Jurgen Hooper), “If you put my brain in a scanner you could locate the activity. Ping! Pain. Now do sorrow. How do I feel sorrow?”

Chaon Cross creates a believable and vulnerable character. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Brian McCaskill and Chaon Cross discuss consciousness. Photo by Michael Brosilow

These ideas, along with concepts of altruism, egoism, academia, and religion’s role in the aforementioned provide the bulk of The Hard Problem’s narrative thrust. Fans of Stoppard’s witty, hyper-intelligent characters will surely find much to sink their brains into in Charles Newell’s smartly directed production. Newell has shaped his staging across a sliding scale of orderly, naturalistic blocking and more expressionistic, emotional outbursts. We see Cross channel Hilary’s excitement for an interview at a leading institute for brain science in an exuberant explosion of measured modern dance. Likewise, a moment when Hilary absconds to the shower to cry, we witness Cross tearfully shuffle along a back ledge, bathed in cool hues.  These moments of expressionism--complemented by Keith Parham’s glowing washes of saturated light--provide an interesting emotional counterpoint to the more articulate side we see of each character.

Minimal Scenic Design for Maximum Effect

John Culbert’s minimal scenic design provides a welcome canvas for Stoppard’s palette of ideas. Consisting of a lightly colored hardwood floor and surrounded by three, off-white benches, his set quickly shifts from the Krohl Institute’s lobby, to an office, to a hotel room with ease. Minimal additions of furniture to these scenes, like an office chair or bed sheets, help to orient the audience. As Hilary, Cross remains on stage for the bulk of the performance, performing costume and scenic changes while also managing to imbue them with an aspect of her character’s journey. Her fearless performance grounds the entire production, and is balanced out by strong performances by the rest of the cast, which includes Emjoy Gavino as Hilary’s assistant, Owais Ahmed as a rival job interviewer, and Nathan Hosner as the fast-talking, no-nonsense founder of the Krohl Institute.

Chaon Cross and Jurgen Hooper on Culbert's minimal and effective set. Photo by Michael Brosilow

THE HARD PROBLEM a Play for Thinkers

Just as we get snapshots of the theories at play in The Hard Problem, we also get snapshots of these character’s lives. Hilary struggles with a decision she made when she was much younger, jockeys for a position at a prestigious brain science institute, and publishes a controversial paper suggesting the plausibility of God’s role in consciousness. And while there are also traces of romance and sexual tension across the play’s hour and forty minutes, none of these conflicts fully crystallizes in the play’s slightly episodic nature. As the lights fade, we are left with plenty to think about, but a bit less to feel. The Hard Problem features robust and detailed performances from a talented team of artists, vying more for audiences’ brains than their hearts.


Note: This play has been added to the Picture this Post roundup of BEST PLAYS. Click here to find this and more at "Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves".


Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.


The Hard Problem runs through April 9, 2017.
Wed and Thurs: 7:30 p.m.
Fridays: 8:00 p.m.
Saturdays: 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.
Sundays: 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.


Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Chicago, IL


$48-$68 regular run. 
Box Office: Can be purchased by calling (773) 753-4472 or

Photos: All photos by Michael Brosilow.

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