Strong Women: Hilary in The Hard Problem

By Elspeth Sweatman

Brenda Meaney as Hilary in A.C.T.'s 2016 production 
of The Hard Problem. Photo by Kevin Berne.
During A.C.T.’s 50th-anniversary season, strong women are navigating their way through traditionally male-oriented spaces. In Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, running through November 13, psychologist Hilary Matthews fights to find her place in a scientific world that frowns upon the “feminine” emotions of mother love, goodness, and faith.

Hilary is an oddity in neuroscience: a person who believes in the power of faith as well as the power of science. This worries her university tutor Spike, who fears that this will sink her chances of an academic career. “She has what he thinks are childish notions about the self, about consciousness, and about belief,” says director Carey Perloff.

But Hilary’s faith is grounded in a pivotal event in her past: when she was a teenager, she gave up her baby for adoption. To cope, she turned to her faith in the inherent goodness of others and in a higher power. “I missed her like half of me from the first day,” she says to Julia in scene six, “and the worst thing was, there was literally nothing I could give her, she’d just gone, and then I thought up something I could do, just to, just to be good, so that in return someone, God, I suppose, would look after her.”

Hilary is also an oddity because of her gender. According to BiasWatchNeuro, a site that tracks gender representation in neuroscience, women only make up 24 percent of neuroscience departments at leading US universities. 

For Perloff, the character of Hilary is one of the main reasons she keeps coming back to Stoppard’s plays. “I love that he writes such great women. Particularly for someone of his generation—he’s going to be 80 this year—his inclusivity about the world and his acceptance of the fact, from Thomasina [in Arcadia] on out, that women can have intellects as fierce or fiercer than men is really amazing and unusual.”

A.C.T.’s production of The Hard Problem runs through November 13. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the ongoing debate about faith, goodness, and neuroscience? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

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