Editor's Note: The Radiant has received a prestigious TCG Edgerton award from the Sloan Science Foundation-- "One of 40 new American plays to watch." This is one of many awards and prestigious credits for Playwright Shirley Lauro. Lauro is currently a Director of the Dramatists Guild Fund at Dramatists Guild of America. Lauro's most popular work was A Piece of My Heart. Her other full-length plays are All Through the Night, Clarence Darrow's Last Trial, AKA, Open Admissions, The Contest, Out of Time, Pearls on the Moon, Margaret and Kit, and Speckled Birds.
The Human Beings Behind the Discoveries
In 2002 the John Nash biopic A Beautiful Mind won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Over the past few years, Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking got the star treatment in The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Relativity opens a window into the life of Albert Einstein. And now, at the Athenaeum, another scientist takes center stage—one whose story is perhaps the most fascinating of the bunch.
Genesis Theatrical Productions Illuminates Female Immigrant Scientist
In the very first scene, the recently widowed Marie Curie arrives at the Sorbonne to claim her beloved Pierre’s lecturing salary. It is only a brief exchange with the university’s leering, condescending paymaster, but it immediately clarifies some of the challenges Curie faced as a woman in a male-dominated field, a Polish immigrant in a xenophobic time and place, and an agnostic in a deeply Catholic country.
Although Curie had already won a Nobel Prize, her position was far from secure. In order to support her family and continue her research into radioactivity (a word she herself coined), she had to take up Pierre’s lectureship, becoming the first woman to hold a chair at the Sorbonne. To help with her experiments, she brought on her late husband’s protégé, Paul Langevin.
It is their work to prove Marie’s theories intertwined with their evolving relationship that forms the backbone of this play. Remarkably, Debbie Ruzicka as Curie and James McGuire as the married Langevin manage to keep a degree of will-they-won’t-they suspense in this century-old love story, while happily avoiding the more cloying elements of the trope. Audiences will really wonder if and how things will work out for this couple, as well as for their groundbreaking research.
Atmosphere Aided by Strong Supporting Characters and Details
Curie and Langevin’s bumpy path towards love, scandal, and nearly into the jaws of ruin is witnessed by her niece Katarina, originally only in Paris to help care for Marie’s children for a few months, but increasingly her chief emotional support. Although it’s a smaller role, Chloe Dzielak’s Katarina is a highlight, at once more romantic than her aunt and more attuned to practical dangers. (In particular, her reactions whenever she walks in on the couple in a state of too-intimate proximity are sublimely hilarious.)
Likewise, Michael Lomenick does capital work in a series of bit parts sprinkled throughout the play. As the aforementioned lecherous bursar; as Marie’s friend and colleague Wilbois; and as the unctuous, manipulative Lord Kelvin (whose rival theory regarding radioactivity threatens Curie’s reputation), Lomenick gives a strong sense of the men who defined the academic mores of the time.
These supporting parts help establish the feel of Curie’s world. Combined with Harrison Ornelas’s lovely period props, Shawn Quinlan’s Downton Abbey-esque costumes, and especially Allison Asher’s dialect coaching—French, Polish, and Scottish all make convincing appearances—the limitations of the small space, spare set, and early-in-the-run stumbles are barely noticeable.
Love and Radiation Both Burn
There are so many stories out there about brilliant men whose pursuit of enlightenment leads them to neglect, if not outright abuse, the people who care about them. The Radiant could so easily have been a gender-swapped addition to this rather tired subgenre—a satisfying turnabout, maybe, but nothing too new.
Instead, Ruzicka brings a more interesting mixture of motivations to Curie: single-minded dedication to her work, yes, and a certain callousness to the desires of others; but vulnerability, longing, and ambition—the need to carry on, as she and Pierre each promised to do if the other were to pass away. All of these make her a compelling flawed heroine.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Athenaeum Theatre, Studio One
2936 N. Southport Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657
About the Author:
Harold Jaffe is a poet, playwright, amateur trapeze artist, freelance greeting card designer, and now, unexpectedly, a theater critic. He earned a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Olin College and since returning to Chicago has worked extensively with Cave Painting Theater Company and the late great Oracle Productions. His chapbook Perpetual Emotion Machine is now available at Women & Children First, and his reviews of shows around town are available right here.