Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s play, “The Half Life of Marie Curie” — now on (virtual) stage at TheatreSquared — follows Gunderson’s usual modus operandi. The prolific author, whose press notices feature a slew of headlines calling her “America’s favorite playwright” and referring to her as the “most produced playwright” in the country, is known for taking deep dives into the lives of historical figures and putting the most interesting and, often, the least known aspects of them on stage. This time, her subjects are Curie and her close friend, British scientist Hertha Ayrton.
“What made me want to write this story was taking something that we do know, Marie Curie, and some things that we don’t know,” Gunderson said during an interview with Ira Flato on his podcast “Science Friday.” “One of those things was a person, Hertha Ayrton, her great friend, an incredible engineer and suffragist. But also this moment in Marie Curie’s life, when she was closer to Monica Lewinsky than Albert Einstein, when she was brutalized in the press, diminished, and this radical cruelty that she survived.”
Gunderson is speaking of a scandal that blew up in the French press when love letters from Curie to a man who was not her husband were made public. Despite the incredible contributions of Curie — who is credited with the discovery of radium and radioactivity, who was then about to win her second Nobel Prize and who would, ultimately, die of a disease caused by her dedication to furthering her scientific studies — during this scandal, she was reduced to a tawdry tabloid story.
“It exposes that scientists are people — they’re not just brains, they’re bodies and hearts,” continued Gunderson. “It’s not what we expect from this certain scientist, Marie Curie, and I found that to be a really thrilling alchemy to put on stage, with rich emotions, high stakes. It became this story about this incredible unstoppable friendship that defines these two women and, frankly, changes the world, as well as saves both their lives.”
Science, then, is but a backdrop — an important backdrop, certainly — to the friendship that plays out on stage, and Gunderson’s talent for writing strong female characters who aren’t immune to vulnerability is on full display.
“I love the very strong friendship that is represented in the play,” says Rebecca Harris, a T2 veteran returning to the theater’s stage as Marie Curie. “I was interested in playing an historical character but with the freedom that comes from representing a nearly undocumented event in her life. This really happened. She did spend some months in England with her friend and fellow scientist Hertha Ayrton, but, of course, no one was privy to their private conversations. I like the texture of the language and the tempo and the heat of the script. It is scientific, as well as poetic.”
“When I first read the play, what I found moving and appealing about it was the fact that here was a play about two very strong, intelligent, professional women who had to fight for their science and their rights to be recognized and valued, but who were shown in a period of great vulnerability,” notes actor Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, who plays Hertha Ayrton. “I feel that in society it can be hard to be allowed to be strong and break down. So this portrayal of a moment of weakness in what we all know were lives of great strength without in any way diminishing that strength was very compelling. … It is also a friendship that lives in a political world. I feel that Hertha views her task of comforting and buoying Marie up, not just as an act of friendship, but also as a political battle in the war against sexism.”
And with the first woman in American political history taking on the mantle of Vice President-elect, November of 2020, as it turns out, is a fortuitous time to mount a play that tackles themes like politics and sexism.
“I think people will also be amazed to be reminded how recently white women in America, as well as other countries, received the vote,” says Harris, pointing out how many themes in the play resonate with what’s going on in the world today. “While it isn’t directly addressed in the script, I think it is also important to consider how much more recently women of color got the right to vote here and abroad. Curie was passionate about truth and proof, which seems remarkably important right now and not something to be taken for granted. Also, she was an immigrant. She moved from Poland to France in her 20s.”
“As Kamala Harris stated in her address as Vice President-elect, she stands on the shoulders of the women who fought before her,” says Mbele-Mbong. “And that fight isn’t just led by the openly militant but by the ones who quietly plug away at their work and allow nothing to stand in their way. Marie Curie wasn’t a vocal feminist, but by her sheer doggedness in pursuit of her science, she broke barriers. Hertha Ayrton was a very vocal feminist, part of the suffrage movement in Britain, protesting and getting arrested. It takes both types to open doors and shatter ceilings. This play highlights just how long that fight has been going on when placed next to the news that, for the first time in the U.S., we have a woman Vice President. It’s mind-blowing when you think about it in the span of time.”
Like all performing arts organizations, T2 has struggled with decisions regarding when live performances might be safe again; Harris says the theater is erring on the side of caution and taking the run of this show virtual in the interest of public safety.
“This play is going straight to tape, straight to streaming, because the covid-19 numbers in Washington County are still too high to allow for live audiences,” she says. “But we have been rehearsing and preparing for this production as we would for a regular play. We’ll tape it like a play, not a movie, so I think people will have an experience that is closer to coming to the theater than to just seeing a film. It has been really great (and very safe) to be in a room with these lovely people working on this project.”
Welcome Back, Rebecca Harris
It’s not unusual for TheatreSquared to attract world class talent with hefty resumes. For example, actor Rebecca Harris, the Fayetteville native who plays Marie Curie in T2’s current production, has film and television credits that include “Outsiders,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “Chicago Med.” But one credit on her resume distinguishes her as particularly notable in the T2 sphere of performers: She was in the company’s inaugural production, 2006’s one-woman show “Bad Dates.” She’s returned to the theater company for many shows since, but “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” marks the first time she’s performed on the theater’s new stage.
“This play happening right now is an amazing gift, and it is a great opportunity to be here in Fayetteville and to continue my relationship with T2,” says Harris. “I’m so proud of everything they have built over the last 15 (!) years, metaphorically and literally. It is an honor to make theater with these artists and really extraordinary to be able to be a part of the first show since the covid-19 forced hiatus.”
Due to the pandemic, “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” will be offered in a virtual format rather than live.
“I’ve been looking forward to working in the new theater,” says Harris. “This is not what I had in mind, but I’ll take it for now.”
‘The Half-Life of Marie Curie’
WHEN — Nov. 28-Dec. 20
WHERE — Online at TheatreSquared
COST — $20
INFO — theatre2.org
FYI — Opening night has been delayed. Contact T2 to reschedule your reservations.