Elegant and delicate as the gossamer wisps of a spider’s web, Spooky Action’s Einstein’s Dreams is a work of enchantment which might actually be true. For what is scientific advancement if not the consistent recognition of things which could not possibly be? (Do you mean to tell me that the whole earth is moving around the Sun?) Einstein, however, grappled with things that were not only impossible to believe, they were almost impossible to imagine – the weight of light; the curved nature of time. They are concepts too strange for us to understand solely with our rational minds, and so we are invited into Einstein’s dreams, where we can experience them without fully understanding.
The dreams of Albert Einstein (Adam Jonas Segaller), here a young man working in a Swiss patent office, are curated by Lieserl (Sarah Olmsted Thomas). She is the daughter Einstein had with Mileva Maric (Madeline Muravchik), whom he later married. The real Lieserl disappeared from the historical record a year after her birth; she may have died (she had scarlet fever) or the Einsteins may have given her up for adoption. It is of no importance; here she is a grown woman, come back from time, or from some alternate universe, or through the agency of some other impossible means that Einstein is on the threshold of discovering.
Einstein, having determined that light moves at a constant speed, was compelled to conclude that something else had to be variable – time itself. But scientific discoveries which shake our understanding at the most fundamental level move out of the sphere of pure science and into the realm of philosophy, as Pope Urban VIII held while torturing Galileo out of proclaiming that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
If time was not the durably constant march forward we dreamed it was, what can we dream it to be? And so Einstein dreams of the possible true nature of time – as a puddle, in which everything is motionless; as an endless circle, in which everything is repeated; going backward (in which Einstein will forget his theories of general and special relativity, causing the world to forget; and his children will die in their mother’s womb; and he and the bickering Mileva will fall in love, and then forget about each other.) In these dreams, each of these concepts of time is true – it is just our perception of it, like our onetime perception of the motionless earth, which is false.
These dreams are peopled with an army of men and women, known and unknown – Lieserl, Einstein’s young son Hans Albert (Beckett Martin as a child; Frank Britton as an adult), his second son Eduard (Connor Hogan), in utero as Einstein dreams but an adult in those dreams, and a throng of scientists who will challenge his theories and become his acolytes (Elver Ariza, Hilary Kacser, Lisa Lias, Jade Wheeler, and Wendy Wilmer).
It is easy to see how someone struggling with such dreams might seem a little – abstracted. We see Einstein in everyday life, making plans with Mileva, fishing with his friend Eduard Besso (Jonathan Fitts), having dinner with Mileva, Besso and Besso’s wife Anna (Whitney Madren). The play makes it clear to us: Einstein is not the absent-minded professor, as he is classically depicted. He is a man trying to make conversation – and decisions – while his very concept of reality is under attack. What good does it do him to decide whether to apply for a professorship in Berlin if he has already been accepted, or rejected, or if he will never leave the moment in which Mileva asks him about it?
Kipp Cheng’s adaptation of Alan Lightman’s excellent, best-selling novel never lets us off the hook; its mission is to add clarity to these difficult subjects and, under Rebecca Holderness’ first-rate direction, it succeeds. The ensemble of scientists pelt Einstein with deep, sometimes unanswerable, questions about time as he tries to decide where to go to dinner, or whether to see a show. The ensemble frequently speaks through Einstein, and we thus see the scientist (who, like an actor, is in service to the truth) as the helpless channel for his discoveries, rather than a manipulator of them. Segaller, incidentally, is excellent at this; at once passionate and restrained. He gives us an Einstein who plunges through his dreams like a diver, and who rises to his waking life – which may just be a construct – sparingly, and only as necessary.
It was, as you know, a waking life full of glory but much pain too. We see Anna as she breaks away from Eduard, walking barefoot in the snow (played, inventively, by sand here) to magnify her pain. We see the younger Eduard hint at the disease which would warp him out of his father’s life. (He became a schizophrenic, and his father never saw him after he was twenty-two.) We don’t see his divorce from Mileva, or his self-imposed exile from his native Germany on the eve of the holocaust, or the agony his contribution to the atomic bomb caused him, but we know about them, too.
What we do see is the grace and elegance of his theories, as represented by the grace and elegance of the actors on stage (Holderness is also the choreographer), who slow down and speed up in concert with Einstein’s theories of time, and of Vicki Davis’ clever and lovely set, which helps us understand what a slender, glassy reed reality is. I particularly liked the work of Britton, who imbued Hans Albert with the sort of impatience that a practical man (Hans Albert became a noted hydraulic engineer) might have for his abstracted father, and Madren, who as Anna reminded us of the peculiar dilemma experienced by ambitious women with unambitious husbands in the 19th century.
Madren is a company member of Burning Coal Theatre of North Carolina, which co-produced this staging with Spooky Action.
One last note: Einstein’s Dreams, like all good art, fictionalizes some reality to get to larger truths. Not all the theories of time articulated in the piece were Einstein’s theories; some of them are not theories at all. Einstein’s close friend was Michele Besso, not Eduard; he did not die young, as the play suggests, but in 1955, only a month before Einstein. But the larger truth is there. At Besso’s funeral, Einstein said this: “Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Adapted by Kipp Erante Cheng from a novel by Alan Lightman
Directed and choreographed by Rebecca Holderness
Produced by Spooky Action Theater and Burning Coal Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: One hour, without intermission