As a way to bring the worlds of science and entertainment closer together, the National Academy of Sciences established a cultural outreach component to the work that they do, creating lectures, art events and plays—all with a science base.
Its latest attempt of a “merge” is a production of Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann’s play Should’ve, being performed as a staged reading on Monday, Oct. 27 in collaboration with the Studio Theatre at the National Academy of Sciences Auditorium, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.
Taking the helm as director is Studio’s Nathan Norcross, who is excited about working with the notable chemist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and exploring the world of science through the play.
“Last year, they did Isaac’s Eye, which followed Isaac Newton, but this year, rather than just picking a play that deals with science, they chose one written by someone from that world, but who is also an accomplished writer himself [Hoffman is also a published poet],” Norcross says. “The meeting of these two worlds through the voice of Dr. Hoffmann is very unique and one I was very pleased to be a part of.”
Should’ve tells the story of three people whose lives change forever after the death of prominent chemist Friedrich Wertheim, who has killed himself after learning his life’s work taught terrorists how to build an easy-to-make neurotoxin.
“The frame of it is an intimate family drama that centers around this family struggling to cope with Friedrich’s recent suicide—he was a father, a husband…and it becomes something of a detective story that delves into family secrets as they all try to understand what drove him to this sudden event,” Norcross says. “At its core, it’s really an exploration of what it means to be a scientist and what it means to be an artist and an overlap of these two worlds.”
Part of that comes from the character of Katie, Friedrich’s daughter and a microbiologist herself, who has very different ideas about the social responsibility of a scientist. Her lover Stefan is a conceptual artist and the blending of art and science is explored through their interactions.
“There’s a similarity between scientists and artists, both trying to understand or discover works or a new way of doing something,” Norcross says. “The play explores the ethics of art and science and through conversations in the play, we compare and contrast them. Even though the scientist passes away before the play begins, his presence is felt throughout the play and his daughter must come to terms with where he was coming from, even if she doesn’t completely agree.”
The show features prominent DC actors, Caroline Bootle, Liz Pierotti, Peter Pereyra, and Marley Kabin—all familiar to Studio audiences, although this is the first time that Norcross will work with any of them.
The actors will come together on Monday afternoon for the first time and then perform the reading that night, but Norcross is confident in his cast’s abilities to deliver an excellent performance.
A bigger challenge, he says, was dealing with the pace of the play, which is comprised of 29 fast-moving scenes.
“As a director, you have to really get inside the mind of the playwright and I am fortunate I have had him around to ask questions so I understand the nugget of the scene and why he chose to take these pages to show 90 seconds of these people’s lives, and understand the progression of the journey,” he says. “It requires the actors to be nimble and jumping from moment to moment in these people’s lives. My biggest challenge is figuring out how to weave the story together in one afternoon with them.”
Norcross admits he did some research to bone up on his scientific vocabulary and Dr. Hoffmann has been available to him to answer questions and help him with any trouble spots.
“The play delves more into a philosophical discussion than scientific, so a science background isn’t essential in terms of what the play is grappling with,” he says. “The audience doesn’t need to know anything about chemistry to understand these characters and what they are dealing with—the idea that those we are closest to, we might not always agree with.”
Should’ve by Roald Hoffmann will be performed Monday, October 27th at The National Academy of Sciences, NAS, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. No charge for admission. Reservations and photo IDs are required. Reservations here.