By Bill Marx
A valentine card is touching because it is short and sweet. A valentine play — even at 90 minutes with no intermission — wears out its affectionate welcome.
The Half-Life of Marie Curie by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Bryn Boice. Produced by The Nora@Central Square Theater (A Catalyst Collaborative@MIT Production) at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through December 12.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s two-hander is a love letter to a pair of remarkable turn-0f-the-century women of science, the celebrated Marie Curie and the less well-known Hertha Ayrton. Curie won two Nobel Prizes over the course of her trailblazing career, discovering radium as well as helping to perfect the X-ray. Ayrton contributed significantly to the technology of the electric arc, removing its initial hiss, sputter, and hum. They were close friends: Ayrton (a determined suffragette) was the more ebullient of the two and buoyed the spirits of the depressive Curie. The Half-Life of Marie Curie is a playfully ironic title: both of these lives, even though they ended too soon (Curie at 66, Ayrton at 69 ), were very full. But just about everything else in this valentine to their brilliance, rebelliousness, and comraderie is earnest and, in terms of drama, that is a problem. A valentine card is touching because it is short and sweet. A valentine play — even at 90 minutes with no intermission — wears out its affectionate welcome.
The chunk of the evening is set around 1912. Curie’s beloved husband and workmate Pierre died six years before and she has taken a younger lover. The affair has been exposed by the man’s wife, and the French establishment, indulging in moralistic fury, has branded Curie a home-wrecking harlot. She is being viciously denounced in the press and her two children are being harassed. Funding her experiments has become a problem while false rumors are being floated that she is Jewish (the Dreyfus affair had only been wrapped up in 1906). Ayrton arrives and energetically bucks up the distraught woman, reminding Curie of her amazing accomplishments and the stupidity of the male order of things. She encourages her to go to the Nobel ceremony despite being discouraged by the Swedish prigs in charge. Some feminists will note that a lot of the talk revolves around the men in the women’s lives — Pierre, Curie’s lover, Albert Einstein, and Aryton’s saintly husband. (Both were fortunate to find supportive hubbies.) Still, there is plenty of scuttlebutt about the women’s accomplishments, their children, and huzzahs to the healing powers of nature at Aryton’s home in Highcliffe, England, where Curie goes to regain her peace of mind.
Much impressive information is provided and emotional temperatures taken without much development in the way of character, plot, or theme. It quickly becomes obvious that, once the furor blows over, Curie will be back, more inventive than ever. (There’s not much depth to the scientist’s despair.) You become sympathetic with Aryton’s repeated hankering to hear some juicy details about Curie’s sex life. (Alas, she’s not forthcoming.) A moment of drummed-up conflict arrives: Curie wears a small glowing vial of radium around her neck and Ayrton is worried about how it may be affecting the health of her and those around her, particularly given how often the woman complains about pains. But this is a short hiatus in the women’s exchanges of (well-deserved) mutual admiration. And that means there is plenty of monotony in an evening that is worshipful rather than exploratory. Characterizing the allure of science in 1933, Curie said that “If I see anything vital around me, it is this very spirit of adventure, which seems ineradicable and is very closely related to curiosity.” There’s nothing theatrically adventurous in Gunderson’s vision of an empowering odd couple, though there are flickers that we are seeing two sides of a single female psyche — an introverted yin and a fearlessly engaged yang.
The two performers, Lee Mikeska Gardner as a morose Curie and Debra Wise as an up-and-at-’em Aryton, are a pleasure to watch, even when they are made to sound like walking/talking encyclopedia entries. Director Bryn Boice leans hard into Gunderson’s stark contrasts: Wise is all vim and vigor and unfazed gusto — she gives us an “unsinkable” Hertha Ayrton. Gardner effectively conveys a more complicated Marie Curie: a downcast dreamer who’s dependent on the confidence supplied by others.
And now for the glowing elephant in the room. Albert Einstein acknowledged that without Curie’s discovery of radium there would have been no atomic bomb. Does anyone doubt that she would have been horrified by Hiroshima and Nagasaki? You can’t blame Curie for being insufficiently prescient about our destructive capabilities, though World War I’s mass slaughter — assisted by chemistry’s development of poison gas — should have offered a strong hint about the homicidal world to come.
At this point, though, ignorance doesn’t excuse a dramatist’s indifference, even if the goal is to supply placid entertainment. In The Half-Life of Marie Curie Gunderson ignores an inconveniently ironic truth: Curie proudly handed radium over to the very patriarchal, anti-Semitic powers-that-be who were pitilessly persecuting her and her loved ones. What could go wrong? Should this innocence be left unchallenged for the sake of projecting the purity of our quest for knowledge? I don’t believe so. As I write, profit-hungry billionaires, mega-banks, fossil fuel companies, and governments (authoritarian and otherwise) are funding teams of scientists and think tanks to come up with “solutions” — involving bioengineering and geoengineering — to the climate crisis, answers whose unpredictable outcomes on our earth and humanity are truly frightening to contemplate. (Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent volume Under a White Sky ferrets out some of the alarming fantasies that are being dreamed up by members of the industrial-politico-military-scientific complex.) That theater companies are blind to the potential for high drama, tragic and otherwise, generated by current efforts to intervene in (or “redesign”) the degraded environment — as we attempt to save ourselves (and consumerism) and whatever remains of nature — is an ongoing disgrace.
In a nutshell, Gunderson fails to take on the issue of responsibility, as playwright Bertolt Brecht does in 1943’s Galileo, his portrait of a seminal scientist who, when he is threatened by torture and worse by the Inquisition, finds subterfuge to be the only way to survive powers hostile to the truth. (Note to A Catalyst Collaborative@MIT Production personnel: perhaps time for a climate crisis savvy adaptation of this play? To my knowledge, Galileo has never been produced professionally in Boston. [See comments section below]) I am not demanding — with the pandemic still raging and social media spewing fog banks of disinformation — for shows to undercut the value of science. Science’s quest for the truth? By all means. Wonder in the face of existence? Knock yourself out. Curiosity about how the universe began and how it is put together? Bravo! But our theater artists can no longer naively accept the birth of a miraculous scientific discovery as a good in itself — without looking skeptically at the hands rocking the cradle.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.