‘The Half-Life of Marie Curie’ lays out its thesis and never challenges the conclusions
It’s hard to get too worked up about Central Square Theater’s production of “The Half-Life of Marie Curie.” The play is so unassuming in its intentions, seemingly content to keep its head down and do the work it’s trying to do, so why not let it? I’m not convinced that you’re going get anything substantial out of its 90 minutes, but while watching I did eventually reach a mindset of “Go on, take a few whacks at the piñata and see if anything tumbles out.” Is that something? The play by Lauren Gunderson is a loving portrait of the entwining of science and female friendship that’s quite possibly a bit too loving for its own good. It has an agenda – which isn’t a crime, most plays do – and manages to clamp down so hard on that agenda that nothing else can get in. The title is a reference to the elemental decay studied by its characters, but becomes too apt to the whole project: We’re getting only half of what we could be out of its subject.
There’s something in the air here that I can’t buy into, however much I may sympathize with the impulses behind the work. Gunderson’s play takes the real-life scientific figures of Marie Curie and Hertha Ayrton (Lee Mikeska Gardner and Debra Wise, respectively) and narrows down its focus to a summer in 1911 when Curie is hit with the one-two punch of winning her second Nobel Prize and having her affair with a married fellow scientist exposed. She should be doing victory laps, but the press has turned her into a kind of harlot-of-the-science-lab. Now an outraged mob calling for her head is quite literally pounding on her front door when Ayrton (a notable scientist and engineer in her own right), offers her respite at her seaside home. There, the two scientific minds are brought together to commiserate as women, scientists, wives and mothers.
There isn’t much of a plot so much as there are circumstances – again, not a crime, but hang on to that for a minute. It feels as though part of Gunderson’s aim was to create a fuller portrait of the women at the heart of her story, to fill in the gaps that arise when all of our knowledge of historical figures comes from biographical sketches in encyclopedias. There’s a loose structure here, aiming for something more reflective. You see it in designer Lindsay Genevieve Fuori’s set, which turns Central Square into something of a meditation room. Interlocking circle platforms surrounded by braided curtains isolate the women in pools of their own thoughts. The setup has great potential for a discussion of what it means to be a woman in (what is largely perceived as) a man’s field, in how things have or have not changed in the past century, in what it means for a woman to step into any number of possible roles in her life.
The problem is that Gunderson’s technique doesn’t allow for much of anything approaching subtlety. Subtext becomes text pretty early on when Wise as Ayrton flat out says to Curie, “They wouldn’t treat you this way if you were a man.” I had hoped that would be the only moment the play was so blunt, but the comment ends up becoming one of three notes that gets banged on for the rest of the narrative. To be clear, I don’t doubt for a second that the real-life Curie and Ayrton encountered waves of sexism throughout their lives; that a patriarchal system resisted giving them the respect, resources and accolades they deserved; that however successful they might have been, they could have gone further had their gender not been perceived as a fault. But “Half-Life” never finds a way to make these truths interesting dramatically beyond stating them outright. The play sticks to the facts, and Central Square’s production can’t break out in a way that lets the situations breathe. I find the whole thing claustrophobic: We’re not being asked to confront situations or observe behavior that might have us reflect on our own complicity in patriarchal systems; we’re left to nod in high-minded smugness each time a character blurts out that a man wouldn’t be treated the way they are. So what are we solving? We’re attending a cheerleading session for our own egos.
I’d argue that the ones most hurt by this approach are Curie and Ayrton. There’s very little for Gardner and Wise to play, so the characters lack blood. A good chunk of the piece has Curie a wreck over her dead spouse and married lover. Gardner as Curie curls up into herself, spending much of the first half of the play in distress, face down on a chaise, clutching a pillow. She keeps insisting how important her scientific pursuits are to her, but the play doesn’t connect them to anything approaching the joy necessary for us to believe her. The closest we get is brief bit about a vial of radium she carries with her, but even that is more about her husband than her own achievements. She’s a wet noodle, when she should be glowing. Wise fairs a bit better; she sweeps into the show like Mary Poppins, full of vim and with just the cure for every ailment her friend suffers. Wise draws herself up, making herself a lighthouse in the storm surrounding her friend. At the certain moment a poem comes exploding out of Ayrton, you get a sense of what Wise might be able to bring to a character with a few more layers.
As it is, you’re watching two characters agree to do nothing but agree with each other. I can appreciate wanting to draw a female friendship in which the parties involved support each other rather than undermine. But with everyone so pure of intention all of the time, the scenes don’t add up to anything. Interactions appear to end only because it’s been five minutes and we’ve got to change locations to keep the audience’s attention. When late in the show a disagreement does appear, it’s almost as if the play suddenly remembered that it needed a conflict. (Don’t worry: It dissolves half a scene later, and for little to no reason.) Director Bryn Boice scored a major hit with SpeakEasy’s production of “The Sound Inside” this fall, but there was some juice in that production because the script gave her some to tap into. Here she seems to be struggling to find ways to keep the show visually interesting. At one point the characters resort to walking in circles while they converse because there simply isn’t anything else going on in the scene for us to look at.
Does all of this equal a shrug? I suppose. “Half-Life” paints its portrait but keeps the vivid colors in the box.