Monday, February 25, 2013

Off Broadway: The Radiant

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne, and the only person to have won Nobel Prizes in two different sciences (Physics and Chemistry).  Arguably the greatest female scientist of all time, her many achievements included the conception of the theory of radioactivity (which contributed to a revolution in the foundations of physics), the isolation of radioactive isotopes, the discovery of two elements (polonium and radium), and the founding of major centers of medical research in Paris and Warsaw.  Having lost her mother and her sister when still a child and having determined to engage in scientific research at a time when women simply did not do that sort of thing, hers was the sort of life about which one would expect major dramatic works to be written – and that is just what Shirley Lauro has done.  Ms Lauro’s play, The Radiant, now being staged by Red Fern Theatre Company at The Theater at the 14th Street Y on East 14th Street in New York, explores one of the most dramatic episodes in the life of this truly extraordinary woman.

In 1903, Marie Curie (Diana LaMar) shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband, Pierre Curie, and with the physicist Henri Becquerel.  Three years later, Marie was widowed when Pierre died in a tragic road accident.  The Sorbonne Physics Department then offered Pierre’s chair to Marie, making her the first woman to hold a professorship at the Sorbonne. 

Among Marie’s greatest accomplishments was her discovery that radiation did not result from molecular interactions but rather from the atom itself.  This was a major step in up-ending the conventional theory that atoms are indivisible.  Although she really had effectively proved her theory through the work she, her husband, and Henri Becquerel already had done (which had earned them the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics), there still were those who continued to challenge her discovery, notable among whom was the eminent Lord Kelvin (Timothy Doyle).  And so, to clinch her case, Marie thought it necessary to isolate the radium atom which, with the help of her assistant, Paul Langevin (AJ Cedeno), is precisely what she did.  (It is interesting to note that the conflict between Lord Kelvin and Marie Curie on this issue, which plays such a significant part in The Radiant, is a bit reminiscent of the conflict which played out between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke regarding the question of whether light consists of waves or particles (which played a similar role in Isaac’s Eye; see our review of that play on 2/10/13.) 

And then, in 1910, widowed with two young children, Marie began a love affair with Paul, her young married assistant who had four children of his own and who was five years her junior.

Less than a year later, Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discoveries of radium and polonium and her isolation of radium but, before she even had time to deliver an acceptance speech in Stockholm, all hell broke loose.  Paul’s wife learned of the affair and informed her brother of it – who, as luck would have it, was the editor of a newspaper in Paris which, in turn, meant that the affair quickly became public news.  The scandal shocked Paris, xenophobic mobs stormed Marie’s house (she was, after all, a Pole, a foreigner!), and some members of the Swedish Academy even went so far as to urge Marie not to come to Stockholm to accept her Prize, suggesting that, had they known of her affair at the time, they would not have awarded the Prize to her in the first place.

Marie’s illustrious career might have ended right there, in scandal, but it did not.  She was much too tough for that.  Defying the Swedish Academy, she accepted her second Nobel, attended the Nobel ceremony and spoke these words:

I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life….I cannot accept the idea in principle that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life.”

Diana LaMar does an outstanding job depicting the complex character of Marie Curie – warts and all.  Marie may have been a scientific genius and a saintly advocate for the sick and injured who bore discrimination both as a foreigner and as a woman but she also was selfish and self-centered, consistently placing her own scientific interests above the interests of others – including those of her very own children.  And Ms LaMar manages to convey all that in her portrayal of Marie – no easy task.  AJ Cedeno is also excellent as the philandering and ambivalent Paul Langevin.  Timothy Doyle displays a multitude of talents in a variety of roles: as the pompous and arrogant Lord Kelvin, as the beaten down Professor Wilbois, and as the unfeeling and lecherous Paymaster.  Finally, mention should be made of Rachel Berger who plays the part of Katarina, Marie’s exploited Polish niece, with disarming charm.   

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