note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Carl A. Rossi
Saint Lambert / Lewis … Jonathan Popp
Émilie du Châtelet … Sarah Newhouse
Voltaire … Diego Arciniegas
Peter / Monsieur du Châtelet … Allan Mayo, Jr.
Olivia / Wet Nurse … Susanne Nitter
Millie / Pauline … Rosalie Norris
The Lyric Stage of Boston’s advertising states that its 2009-2010 season is “theatre that engages your heart and your mind”; its production of Karen Zacarias’ LEGACY OF LIGHT tilts the scales, heavily, in favor of the latter --- in alternating scenes between French court-society of the 1700s and the New Jersey of today, two middle-aged women stand at contrasting yet parallel crossroads: the real-life physicist Émilie de Châtelet, married lover of Voltaire and pregnant by the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert, races against time to complete her research as she fears, at her age, that she may die in childbirth; the fictional scientist Olivia, cancer survivor, has discovered a planet-embryo in a distant galaxy and has engaged a young woman to bear her husband’s child. There is little drama or suspense to the evening --- the alternating scenes immediately establish an A-B-A-B pattern, merging into a lengthy conclusion with happy endings for all (Ms. Zacarias opts for fantasy rather than settling for compromises in this man-made world --- nor is she the only female writer to have done this) --- yet her academic wit tickled my brain and Lois Roach has directed all those words, briskly.
But what held my attention, throughout, is Sarah Newhouse as Émilie du Châtelet. As I have written in the past, Ms. Newhouse is a grim Shakespearean for the Actors Shakespeare Project, so I was delighted beyond measure to see how charming she is, here; her ASP-persona held in check by her period dresses and hair-pieces. Again and again, I marveled at Ms. Newhouse’s subtle, droll playing --- how a turn of her head, a vocal inflection can make her physically alluring; her graven handsomeness threatening to glow into out-and-out prettiness; her commanding intelligence issuing forth from a radiant brain rather than from an ASP-vendetta --- I vastly enjoyed this side of Ms. Newhouse, though I wouldn’t rule out her Shakespeare, altogether: in the proper directorial hands and with similar LEGACY costumes, she would excel as the fairy-tale Countess in ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL … Diego Arciniegas’ Voltaire is just as good opposite this enchantress; his past performances, filtered through dark waters, always kept me at arm’s length, yet here he is a courtly crab-apple with a sweet center: thus, the Émilie-Voltaire duets, even when sparring, begin and remain a true marriage of mature minds --- in an era of HOT twenty-somethings, how refreshing to see a middle-aged stage couple who actually LIKE each other! Since things tend to come in threes, Suzanne Nitter’s Olivia is her sweetest work, thus far --- fresh lemonade with plenty of sugar --- as the New Jersey dream-husband, so sensitive, so understanding, so supportive (so boring!), Allan Mayo, Jr.’s bounce could teach Mr. Milne’s Tigger a thing or two. Playing two roles apiece, Rosaline Norris and Jonathan Popp fare better in period because they each have something to stylize; as the modern-day surrogate mother and her creepy, possessive brother, Ms. Norris ends up as a bellowing belligerent and Mr. Popp is pure DOOD --- I gather that the Mss. Roach and Norris and Mr. Popp felt these roles, as written, were too “neutral” and decided to flesh them out, paradoxically, as cartoons. Ms. Norris and Mr. Popp reap their laughs, of course, but I see no reason why they must go out of their way to trash their own generation and to stick out like sore thumbs in an otherwise excellent ensemble.