3 Stars out of 4
It is an astonishing pleasure to witness wise vintage actors given juicy roles that allow them to showcase true mastery of the acting craft as they involve us in complex characters and reveal a nuanced story. Watching beloved Chicago institution Mike Nussbaum (purportedly the oldest working union actor on stage as reported by Actor’s Equity)portray Albert Einstein and Anne Whitney portray Helen Dukas, his lifelong secretary and housekeeper in Northlight Theatre’s production of Mark St.Germain’s new play Relativity brings a singular warmth and joy. We need more plays that display age diversity: people have truly important things to say and do well into later life, and angst is so much deeper when mixed with the perspective of a long timeline.
The play is a reflection on the nature of genius and what it is like to live with one when that genius is a human full of foibles. It is also a meditation on the complicated fraught nature of family dynamics. The story begins with cub reporter Margaret Harding (a determined Katherine Keberlein) stalking the esteemed scientist to get an interview for a Jewish publication. She circumvents his diligent gatekeeper Helen Dukas, his professional “wife”, who knows the man and his work more than Einstein himself and makes it her life’s work to keep out complications. Harding approaches Einstein after interviewing most of his living family and friends, and she is exceptionally facile at quoting the man to himself. But in a shocking twist, the play fictionally postulates that this reporter is in fact Einstein’s lost daughter given up for adoption at 2, just before he completes the seminal works that will establish his career as the pre-eminent scientist of his century.
This girl, conceived out of wedlock, and falling ill with scarlet fever which at the time could lead to a lifetime of infirmity, was a risk to the rising academic who needed no skeletons in the closet for rivals to unmask. He makes a calculated decision to give up the child so as not to endanger his career, and this drama speculates on the human cost of that choice. The plot thickens as we become aware that his long lost daughter has a child: his grandchild, who is gifted in physics. The play asks many layered difficult questions not the least of which is does genius allow/compel you to operate outside of social norms. It does not answer any of the questions and the ending the play with projections of the universe somehow trivializes the raw human emotion that the questions give rise to, and may let the genius off the hook. The central question that his daughter needs to know about this great man is whether he has any goodness in him. And you will keep asking that question on your journey home after seeing this play.
Director BJ Jones directs these master artists with a well paced hand so that the emotional punches strike the audience directly in the solar plexus. The scenic design by Jack Magaw has an intimate feel, effectively utilizing beautiful projections by Stephan Mazurek to indicate Princeton.
While Relativity is more human dynamics than it is quantum physics, it is a work that asks you to think deeply. In the bodies and hearts of these l artists, it is a play that will follow your mind afterwards and give you much to contemplate.
Relativity is playing Wednesdays through Sundays until June 25, 2017 at Northlight Theatre in the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie. For tickets and information go to call 847-673-6300 or go to www.northligh.org or http://www.theatreinchicago.com/relativity/8360/