Legacy’ Shines Light on Age-Old Formula of Career, Motherhood
By weaving a delicate dance between the past and the future, “Legacy of Light,” making its world premiere at Arena Stage, shows us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
D.C. playwright Karen Zacarías, founding artistic director of Young Playwrights’ Theater, has written an ambitious script that simultaneously intertwines 18th-century France with the modern day. Directed by Molly Smith, “Legacy of Light” offers an inspiring and perceptive chronicle based on two real-life women scientists who must balance their geniuses with maternity.
The women’s commonalities reach far and wide. Their discoveries are famous; their identities are not. One lived in the past, way ahead of her time, and her discoveries have far surpassed her death. The other lives in the present and her scientific breakthrough is the wave of the future. Both struggle with motherhood and threats to their existence.
Their names, by the way, are Émilie du Châtelet and Vera Rubin (whom the character Dr. Olivia Hasting Brown is modeled after in the play). Émilie was a French mathematician and physicist who challenged Isaac Newton with her discovery that the energy of a moving object is proportional not to its velocity, but to the square of its velocity. She was the first woman to be published by the Académie Royale des Sciences, and she cohabitated with her lifelong intellectual and romantic partner Voltaire — much more of a household name and also a product of the French Enlightenment — who once described the intellectual Émilie as “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.”
Vera Rubin is an astrophysicist who in 1974 dispelled misconceptions about women in science by discovering dark matter, an as-of-yet unknown substance thought to make up 96 percent of the universe. (In the play, her character Olivia discovers a new planet.)
By staging their stories side by side, Zacarías ingeniously sends us the bittersweet message that although gender roles have drastically changed since the Age of Enlightenment, offering women many more professional and maternal options, women still must struggle to balance career and family. Zacarías reminds us that a woman’s choice to take advantage of her brain in a man’s world while negotiating motherhood is a collective fight not all females win.
But don’t be fooled. The play isn’t all scientific formulas and feminism. It’s actually part-comedy, a fact established in the opening scene when an over-the-top drama-king Voltaire, deliciously played by Stephen Schnetzer, bursts into his abode to catch Émilie in a lustful embrace with her new boy-toy, poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert. When Voltaire, her lover, exclaims in all seriousness, “What would your husband think?” the audience becomes undone. Lise Bruneau is equally engaging as the dazzlingly brilliant and fetching Émilie, who honestly and innocently protests, “But he’s so attractive and young!” In all fairness to Émilie, it was the accepted custom in their French society for spouses, and lovers, to take extra lovers. In fact, as Émilie points out, Voltaire is guilty as well, evidenced by the stack of love letters in his desk.
Zacarías continues to play with the amusing couple, who address the audience in long asides, chronicling each other’s work and life details. “One more thing,” they matter-of-factly tell the audience, “we’re dead.”
The play does turn serious. Émilie unwittingly gets pregnant by her young lover, which — because she is 42 at a time when the world of medicine is in its infancy — threatens her life. This puts her into a tailspin as she rushes to finish her experiments to ensure her mathematical immortality.
Jump to the present day, and Olivia — given a likable and feisty performance by Carla Harting — has put off motherhood to concentrate on her career and fight off cancer. She makes the bold decision, however, that it is not too late to add a life to her own immortality and convinces her husband Peter to hire a surrogate to conceive their baby.
Zacarías’s interweaving storylines, which could have become bogged down in details and awkward transitions, work seamlessly on many levels. Like Émilie, Olivia pushes the boundaries of accepted physics, but trespasses even further into risk when combining science and motherhood with her common, but still controversial, choice of surrogacy. Although Émilie sadly didn’t have that option, and was thus threatened with death by her pregnancy, Olivia’s choice mirrored the moral and ethical risk-taking of Émilie and Voltaire, the French philosophers who rejected orthodox Christianity and viewed the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV as dangerous and evil.
By the end of the play, Zacarías even has the characters of both worlds using each other’s furniture and encountering one another in time-bending conversations.
The rest of the casting is also stellar. Two actors play doubles that trespass the two worlds, further solidifying the link between past and present. A dexterous Lindsey Kyler, making her debut appearance at Arena Stage, doubles as Millie, Olivia and Peter’s surrogate, as well as Pauline, Émilie’s daughter. David Covington’s two characters are even further apart: a seductive, airy and somewhat arrogant Marquis du Châtelet, and Lewis, Millie’s humble, doting brother who strongly disapproves of Millie selling herself, so to speak, by bearing someone else’s child.
Zacarías’s final and most satisfying mixture is of science and love. “Light and love are the same,” exclaims Émilie, the intuitive philosopher of facts and feelings. “They have no mass. If they did, how could the earth survive the pelting?”
It is clear that these characters have left us with a legacy of light, of intellect and discovery. Zacarías herself shines with a bright theatrical legacy that combines words with talent, and history with emotion. Both cast an invaluable beam that transcends time.
“Legacy of Light” runs through June 14 at Arena Stage in Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington, Va. Tickets are to . For more information, please call (202) 488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.