Friendship Triumphs in Falcon Theatre’s “The Half Life of Marie Curie”
By Alan Jozwiak
Out of all the topics for a play, friendship ends up being a secondary plot point for most novelists and storytellers.
However, playwright Lauren Gunderson (“Silent Sky” and “Ada and the Engine”) places friendship as the center of her play about two women, the engineer Hertha Ayrton (Tracy M. Schoster) and Marie Curie (Tara Williams). Gunderson’s “The Half Life of Marie Curie” covers their friendship during a difficult period in Marie Curie’s life and is the latest offering by Falcon Theatre leading off their 2022-2023 theatrical season.
The play begins with a distraught Curie facing public condemnation and press ridicule for an affair she was having with long-time colleague Paul Langevin, himself a married man. Hertha comes to console her friend and offers her a place to stay at her seaside cottage. From there, we get to see different aspects of their friendship unfold as Curie puts her life back together and Ayrton finds ways to help and challenge her friend during this transition.
What sounds as a relatively simple plot becomes a complex study of the ways two women interact and draw on each for strength. Artistic director of Falcon Ted Weil finds the moments of intimacy between these two women, luring the audience into private moments of hope and longing.
Weil’s direction strips down the artifice and pretense of 19th century France to get at the heart of these two characters. That approach is echoed within the stage itself. The stage is simple, with an almost laboratory-sterile set of screens along the back wall offset with comforting elements found within Ayrton’s cottage–a table and chairs, small hutch, and a chaise lounge with various Persian rugs on the floor.
Tracy M. Schoster plays a strong Hertha Ayrton, who is a strong and capable woman willing to go to jail for her beliefs in women’s equality. Hertha has all the best lines in the script and it was a delight to see them delivered by such a capable actor. I think the moment when Schoster shines within this play is when she confronts Curie over her possible radium poisoning. It is a tense scene which could have gotten histrionic in the hands of a lesser performer.
Tara Williams plays a reserved and conflicted Marie Curie. Curie is uncompromising in what she does, but also conflicted by being pulled in different directions. Williams captures that conflict and unwillingness to compromise within her performance. I think the most memorable scene with Williams is when the two women share some spirituous beverages. We get to see a tipsy Curie who lets her guard down completely. Williams strikes the proper balance in that scene which could have been a caricature into an authentic moment between friends.
In closing, “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” is a must-see for those people in love with Laura Gunderson’s work (I would put myself in that category) and for those wanting an authentic exploration of the love and regard between two women fighting against the forces of societal repression and chauvinism. I went to this performance with a friend who alternatively laughed and cried during the show because the incidents reminded her of her relationship with a close girlfriend who has passed. That is the strength of this production; this play serves to remind us of all that we get by with a little help from our friends.
“The Half-Life of Marie Curie” is running from September 23 to October 8, with shows running Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm. For additional show information and ticket sales, go to the Falcon Theatre website at: https://falcontheater.net/.
Alan Jozwiak is a local playwright, UC English Composition instructor, Comics Scholar and has been with with LCT for over 10 years.