Playwright Karen Zacarias takes two women, living 260 years apart, and juxtaposes their tragicomic stories of survival and immortality. Commissioned by Arena Stage and buoyantly directed by Molly Smith, Zacarias, doing her finest writing to date with Legacy of Light, equates the laws of physical science with human love and uses magical realism in some dreamlike moments to draw together her serendipitous stories.
Two brilliantly gifted, 42-year-old women share a common passion; both not only hunger for human continuity but also lust for knowledge, and are driven to exhaustion “to do something that matters.” But because of the 18th century’s ignorance of the importance of sanitation and the nonexistence of antibiotics, all is not well with Emilie du Chatelet, (Lise Bruneau), who has been impregnated by her impetuous, young lover, Saint-Lambert (David Covington). The rate of death from childbirth is high and she knows it. Emilie, a physicist, a mathematician and an aristocrat who actually lived during the Age of Enlightenment, turns to her soul mate, Voltaire, the famous French philosopher and her former lover. Hell bent to beat the clock, Emilie slavishly works in her country estate to finish her stellar achievement, a translation of Newton’s “Principia Mathematica.”
Olivia (Carla Harting), a brilliant 21st century astrophysicist in New Jersey, is on the brink of discovering a planet in its embryonic stages. She too longs for continuity when, inspired by the ever-evolving, expanding universe, she tells her teacher husband, Peter, she wants to have a baby. Peter (Michael Russotto), a simple, practical man, however, has no such grand designs. Olivia is a stage IV ovarian cancer survivor. Can she live long enough to care for a child? Unknown and unrelated to each other, the two women are linked by the legacy of scientific know-how handed down from one generation to the next.
Meanwhile, a 20-year old woman, Millie (Lindsey Kyler) and her brother, Lewis (David Covington) fight off foreclosure on a treasured family home. So Millie negotiates to be a surrogate mom, artificially inseminated by Peter to conceive a child for Olivia.
Alternating like fugal counterpoint in a musical composition, we follow the two pregnancies through tandem scenes with “Ah-hah” moments of scientific revelations ranging from Newton’s laws of planetary motion to Einstein’s relativity to theories of Black Matter.
In one of the opening scenes, Voltaire, the Father of the Enlightenment, played with light-hearted authority and sly wit by Stephen Schnetzer, tells us he made up the story about Newton discovering the law of gravity by getting hit on the head with an apple. Voltaire wrote it to make the abstract obvious to the masses. Capable of topping Voltaire in every scene, Emilie tells him, it’s more likely that Newton got his ideas, from observation, experimentation, and mathematical thought, “perhaps inspired by falling fruit.”
From the start, focus falls on human relationships and changing perspectives. Voltaire takes credit for providing the play’s gravitational center, including his advocacy for freedom and civil rights: “I am everywhere….I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Later, his advocacy turns to human rights, as he laments the King’s silence on preventing maternal childbirth deaths.
Radiant Lise Bruneau endows Emilie with a liveliness and optimistic tone that is infectious and elegantly hopeful, confirming, “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” even when the outlook looks bleak. But paramount is her soliloquy on the Conservation of Energy: “Everything changes, but nothing is lost- ever.” Voltaire made mathematical mistakes that cost him his scientific reputation, while Emilie did calculations correctly without recognition. Nothing is lost, however. Today, it is Emilie du Chatelet, not Voltaire, who is the renowned scientist.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. There’s a sense of spontaneity, immediacy and sheer joy in all the acting, as when Carla Harting as Olivia steps to the apron for a Girl Scout meeting urging girls to pursue scientific careers. Harting conveys a sense that Olivia’s lecture on Dark Matter, that is everywhere, “90% of the universe….and unknown,” comes through her, not from her. Off her pedestal, the modern world-class scientist is humble, obsessed with how little she really knows.
Michael Russotto plays Peter with sensitivity and the Marquis du Chatelet, Emilie’s husband, with an endearing and sometimes bumbling charm. David Covington, a tap-dancer by training, as Saint-Lambert, and Lewis, is so light on his feet he could be walking on the moon. His character changes seem weightless. And Lindsey Kyler, with a voice that cuts through anything pompous, plays Millie, the well-grounded but gung-ho, down-to-earth surrogate mother. Kyler also doubles as Pauline, Emilie’s daughter, and makes her disarmingly bratty, fresh and nervy.
The costumes designed by Linda Cho are aptly plush and gorgeous, and intricately detailed, while allowing for often head-spinning quick changes. On the inviting and adaptable, minimalist set, designed by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, classically balanced Roman-arches suggest pre-Revolutionary grandeur.
Light designed by Michael Gilliam, is a character in the play. The luminous azure blue stage back wall lighting and projections of galaxies deftly draw attention to Emilie’s, Voltaire’s and Olivia’s levitating theories on momentum, the conservation of energy, that evolve into E=MC2, the theory of relativity. The display of a yellow-red-violet-green prism, as a backdrop for Emilie’s “It heats and burns” soliloquy on the properties of light, creates an exquisitely beautiful transition point and allegorical symbol for human love.
Zacarias’ unique magical realism works in this play, especially in the hilarious last scene where all the loose ends fuse together. Under Smith’s hand, reality builds relentlessly toward one last dreamy, myth-like sequence where lightning flashes, and Voltaire confronts screaming Olivia in a tree.
You know something is right when audience members leave repeating a line from the play out loud, as if it’s a memorable tune from a hit musical: “Everything changes, but nothing is lost.” I left the theater levitating, believing that even miracles are possible. Let’s hope Zacarias keeps our local theaters alive and well, humming with the creative energy of her magical touch. Legacy of Light is a wonderful play, well worth seeing.
Legacy of Light, a world premiere
by Karen Zacarias
directed by Molly Smith
produced by Arena Stage
reviewed by Rosalind Lacy