In Chapel Hill’s University Mall, if you walk past the usual fast food joints, shoe stores, and other assorted emblems of American capitalism that could be in Anytown, U.S.A., you will come across an unusual storefront: Deep Dish Theater. While I cannot say that no other shopping malls house a theatre company, Deep Dish has been presenting substantial and artistically significant theatrical productions for thirteen years. Don’t let the location fool you; this is no dumbed-down, appeal to the lowest common denominator enterprise, and their current production is perhaps most representative of their artistic integrity. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a multilayered, historical, and intellectual conundrum that demands commitment and total focus from the audience, with the rewards directly proportional to that effort.

Deep Dish, as one can guess, being housed in the space of a mall store, is rather narrow and has a seating capacity of just about seventy. The stage also is not very deep, but even with all those physical restrictions, the set (by Christa Devitt) is a beautiful, long dining room table in a fashionable room that can serve equally well for the time travel that is at the center of the story. So, what is the story, that I may have already caused some trepidation in those considering some play shopping at the mall? Well, Stoppard’s Arcadia does not lend itself easily to a cogent synopsis. At its surface, it involves time tripping between the present and 1809 in Sidley Park, an upper class British estate. Two somewhat competing historical biographers are attempting to research and discern the various events that took place at the very grounds they are currently working from, some dealing with possible murder, sexual escapades, and the possible involvement of Lord Byron. That merely scratches the surface of the storyline, and doesn’t even begin to examine what lurks in the crevices and subconscious.

The play opens in 1809, where we meet the group of 19th century characters as opposed to the current day troupe. Septimus Hodge (played with great delicious British haughtiness by Ryan Brock) is the tutor to the precocious and constantly questioning Thomasina Coverly (Nicole Gabriel), as well as the estate gossip and non-discerning ladies man. He is also alleged to be a colleague and confidante of Lord Byron, an important but unseen presence in the play. Lady Croom (Leanne Norton Heintz) runs the estate and everyone connected with it. A major rebuilding of the gardens is taking place, sexual accusations are flying as well as other pettiness, but the young Thomasina, in her guileless innocence, ponders profound questions of existence. Running parallel in alternating scenes (except for the side-by-side finale), is the modern-day cast of characters, most importantly Hannah Jarvis (Dorothy Recasner Brown) and Bernard Nightingale (Eric Carl). While they are both investigating different aspects of life on the early 19th century Sidley Park estate, their perceptions and interpretations of what happened are similar, and equally faulty and true. Can anyone — even historians — ever really know what happened? Are we all just creatures of our own biases? Is science and mathematics the only place we can find “truth” or is even that a mirage. (See climate change deniers.)

There is much to admire in this production. One of the major stars is the authentic, period costumes. Costume Designer LeGrande Smith seemed (although that’s unlikely) to have a limitless budget and clothed both sets of characters in an astounding array of very believable dress. Another central feature of this play is that all of the characters have some varying form of a British accent. Dialect coach Josephine Hall had her hands full ensuring that everyone not only spoke with a British dialect, but that each one was unique to its character and time period. Each actor, for the most part, spoke as if this was entirely natural and did not adversely affect the delivery or cadence of his or her lines. Directed with great style by Paul Frellick, he did as best as can be expected on what could become a very crowded stage with a very large immovable table as the centerpiece.

From the first play that I was required to read in high school English class through college, I recall that the class was always given the disclaimer that reading a play can only approximate the full experience of actually seeing that play performed, and that it was an inferior exposure. While that may be generally true, my reaction to Arcadia was the exact opposite. Stoppard’s work is considered a masterpiece, but the extreme density and volume of the dialogue makes it seem better suited to reading, either as a script, or even a novella. There were several scenes where individual dialogue went on for ten minutes or more, with barely a breath taken. For all the beauty of the set and costumes, Arcadia is mostly an interior and insular study of ideas, belief, and the mind. There is no real “action” in the generally accepted meaning of that term. While that does not mean that it is a theatrical experience that bores, it does mean that you should come to Arcadia armed with laser-like focus, and even a bit of preparation. Deep Dish Theater dishes it up (couldn’t resist that bad pun), but it is up to you to arrive intellectually hungry.

Arcadia continues through Saturday, March 22. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.