CAMBRIDGE — “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter,” Hannah Jarvis explains in Tom Stoppard’s 1993 drama “Arcadia.” Stoppard is always wanting to know; in “Arcadia” he explores quantum physics, deterministic chaos, iterated algorithms, and the second law of thermodynamics. But he’s also keen to observe people, as if to suggest we’re just as intriguing as galaxies and atoms. It’s a funny, touching play, one of his best, and the Nora Theatre Company production now up at Central Square Theater, while doing justice to the ideas, gives it humor and heart.
The action is set in a single room of Sidley Park, the Coverly family’s country house in Derbyshire, England. The year is first 1809 and then “the present day,” with the time period switching back and forth until the seventh and last scene, when the two eras converge.
In 1809, 22-year-old Septimus Hodge is tutoring precocious 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly, who posits that “if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future.” Thomasina is also curious about “carnal embrace,” and there’s plenty of that in evidence, as Septimus has his eye on both Thomasina’s mother, Lady Croom, and Mrs. Chater, who, notwithstanding the presence of Mr. Chater, is equally amenable to the attentions of Lady Croom’s brother, Captain Brice, and of fellow house guest Lord Byron. (Neither Mrs. Chater nor Byron actually appears onstage.) There’s uproar outside as well, since Lord Croom (another unseen character) has hired architect Richard Noakes to give Sidley Park’s Enlightenment landscaping — “nature as God intended,” according to Lady C — a Gothic makeover.
In the present day, meanwhile, competing scholars Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale are trying to determine what went down in 1809 — specifically whether Byron fled England after killing Mr. Chater in a duel, and who was the mysterious Sidley Park hermit. Even when the academic conclusions of this pair seem reasonable, they can turn out to be wrong, Stoppard’s point being that real history is invariably messier and more complicated than our plausible reconstructions.
Running just over three hours, with a single 15-minute intermission, the Nora production, under artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner, has a witty, cartoonish feel to it. The audience, seated on three sides of the set, gets a good view of the long wooden table, with its algebra book and theodolite and domino set and tiny terrarium. There are French windows and doors, as Stoppard requests, and a sepia rendition of trees in the distance. The switching between eras is meant to be fluid, so not to worry if you see a 21st-century coffee mug in 1809 (just assume it’s in a quantum state), or if 19th-century tortoise Plautus looks exactly like his 21st-century counterpart, Lightning.
The acting is first rate, right down to Tank the Turtle, who doubles as Plautus and Lightning. Lolling on the table or tripping in beauty, Kira Patterson is an irrepressible Thomasina, and convincing as a 13-year-old. Celeste Oliva brings winsome detail to the repressed, put-upon Hannah; Ross MacDonald is bluff but not unsympathetic as the overconfident Bernard. Sarah Oakes Muirhead is arch but also sexy as Lady Croom; Will Madden is a sly fox of a Septimus; Alexander Platt makes a deliciously comic fool of the multiply cuckolded Chater. Matthew Zahnzinger, as the present-day Valentine Coverly, does a nice job of explaining iterated algorithms to both Hannah and the audience. Death may haunt “Arcadia,” but there’s abundant life in this Nora production.
Play by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Presented by Nora Theatre Company.
At Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through May 1. Tickets: $15-$55, 617-576-9278, www.centralsquaretheater.orgJeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.