Radiant performances at Falcon’s “Marie Curie”
Review by Doug Iden
How difficult is it for a woman to survive and prosper in the glaring spotlight of academic, societal and scientific scrutiny by a largely male-oriented rigid and hidebound system? This is one of many questions asked in the regional premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s 2019 play The Half Life of Marie Curie. Gunderson, one of the most produced playwrights in America, tells the true story of two- time Nobel Prize winner Marie (Madame) Curie (Tara Williams) and her friendship with pioneering Electro-Mechanical engineer and mathematician Hertha Ayrton (Tracy Schoster).
In 1911, Curie feels that her life is in freefall and she risks losing everything important including her ability to continue research into her specialty of radiation. With her now-deceased husband Pierre, Curie had discovered the elements radium and Polonium (named after her native Poland). Initially. Pierre alone was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics but he insisted that Marie share the award with him. Unfortunately, Pierre was killed in a car accident and Marie is left to continue the scientific discoveries while raising her daughters.
Now Curie Is in the doldrums, jointly fighting the disrespectful attitude of her masculine controlled scientific world but also beset by societal condemnations of her alleged affair with a married colleague. The play starts with the cacophony of a screaming mob outside Curie’s house calling her a harlot and worse. She is afraid for herself and her children or even leave the house. She feels ostracized and lost. Into this chaos walks Ayrton from England to try to “save” Madam Curie.
In an introduction, Schoster explains Ayrton’s scientific contributions which led to the elimination of the flickering and “hissing” sound created by early electrical public lighting because oxygen was in contact with the arcing electrical current. She was also an early suffragette and had been arrested for protests about women’s voting rights. She states that men are intimidated by a “woman who knows her worth”.
The primary element in the play is the juncture of these brilliant women, one continuing the fight and the other in an increasing depression led, in part, by a deteriorating medical condition exacerbated by the danger of radioactivity. Ayrton’s personality is bold, brassy and combative accompanied by an acid tongue and unforgiving nature about male injustices. She is a force of nature (which she studied later as wave movements). Curie Is tired, physically and emotionally, withdrawn and world-weary. Ayrton convinces Curie to come to England for some R&R at her country estate. Although wary, Curie agrees and, over the next months, begins to resuscitate herself mentally and emotionally.
There are several elements in the play directed by Ted Weil that are very interesting and add to the storytelling and the tension. The set design by Weil is simple and serves as the living room for homes in Paris and England with a sofa, table and chairs and a screen in the back. The paneled screen, however, serves as more than decoration because colored lights glowing through the screen represents symbolism in the play. When Curie, proudly, explains the presence of the radium vial, she talks about the green glow which now appears in the panels. Initially, it represents joy and scientific accomplishment but, ultimately, indicates a foreboding of her eventual death by radiation poisoning. Red lights also serve as a danger omen. We don’t often discuss sound but Weil has intriguingly meshed sound effects to propel the story. We hear a “hissing” sound when Ayrton discusses her work with the arc lamps and, between scenes we hear a ticking sound, symbolic of a time bomb.
The acting by Schoster and Williams is superb. Their interactions range from a supportive woman bucking up a depressed one to a bitter argument between them to a joint nurturing environment. Schoster’s strong, charismatic character remains fairly constant throughout the play but Williams’ Madam Curie ranges from despondent to joyful. They represent true friendship with each character highly supportive and not jealous of each other’s accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses. After winning her second Nobel Prize, this time for Chemistry, Curie is discouraged from accepting in person. At Ayrton’s insistence, Curie goes anyway. Williams joyfully recounts the story.
This is an uplifting, anthem to two extremely brilliant women who overcome the travails of their time. This is a good play, very well acted and Weil directed.
So, discover your unexpected half-life and find a Curie to an otherwise boring evening by going to the Falcon Theater for The Half Life of Marie Curie running through October 8. Their next production is Betrayal running from November 18 through December 3. Get ticket at the Falcon Ticketing service.