Although the “couple” lived during the golden Age of Enlightenment, women were still considered lesser beings and their accomplishments were secondary to their male counterparts, regardless of their revolutionary findings and contributions.
Also, Lauren Gunderson’s two-act, two-hour play is an ideal vehicle for introducing Nora’s newly-appointed artistic director, Lee Mikeska Gardner, who’s making her Boston acting debut in the title role. Gardner’s award-winning directing and acting accomplishments are impressive. As the deceased-brought-back-to-life Emilie to review her life and death, Gardner magnificently displays her acting chops, in the small, narrow space, sandwiched between theatergoers seated on both sides, within reach of the performers. And for the next two hours, Gardner keeps the audience’s attention, with her compelling eye contact, reaching out to individuals.
As Emilie, she opens with, “I died thinking I’m not done.” She demonstrates how the living and dead cannot touch each other, without creating devastating results to her, striking her down.
Keeping with Nora Theater’s outstanding tradition, Steven Royal’s oblong set, with black-and-white equations on the floor and walls and large, suspended orbs and arcs, is snazzy, surrealistic, and visually stunning. A few props, like movable chairs and a desk, fill in the space.
Gardner never leaves the stage. She appears in character minutes before the play busying herself. She remains working at Emilie’s desk, writing, solving and translating, throughout intermission,and fades to darkness at the end.
Gunderson traces every key point in Emilie’s life, and award-winning director Judy Braha breathes personality and life into Emilie’s recounting her privileged childhood. She was born in Paris, Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, on Dec. 17, 1706; received an unprecedented privately-tutored education, and was married at 19 to Florent-Claude, Marquis du Chatelet-Count of Laumont, a military leader, in 1725. His long absences from home during military campaigns, enabled the bored young Marquise to study more with tutors. Although she had two children, (daughter, Gabrielle-Pauline, in 1726, and son, Louis-Marie Florent in 1727), she had another son, Victor-Esprit, who died young. She left her two children in the care of nannies or in private schools, while she lived the high life, gambling, socializing, and studying further. She tried to pass for a male, in cafes and salons frequented by scientists and mathematicians, then boldly frequented these scholastic gatherings as herself.
Her scandalous affair and professional liaison with Voltaire started in1933, and endured for the rest of her life. She died 10 days after giving birth to the daughter of her latest lover, the Marquis de Saint-Lambert, Sept. 2, 1749. While working feverishly at her desk, trying to finish her work on Newton’s Principia, she went into labor. The baby died shortly thereafter.
Gunderson traces every aspect of Emilie’s life, highlighting her brilliance-her scientific and mathematical accomplishments - through Emilie’s flashbacks. Separating life from death, Emilie can only narrate and observe, while accomplished actress Sophori Ngin seamlessly fuses into a younger version of our vibrant, coquettish, hardworking heroine.
Versatile actor-director-musician Steven Barkhimer adds liveliness, satire, sauciness and comedy to his role as Voltaire. His shouting matches with Emilie are priceless.
Unfortunately, talented Lewis D. Wheeler and Michele Dowd, elegantly dressed in Chelsea Kerl’s splendid period costumes and wigs, are underutilized, in cameo and supporting roles.
Gunderson’s play is, indeed, enlightening and empowering to women who, 300 years later, are still fighting for equality among male counterparts; but the play’s structure is stilted, despite this cast’s superb efforts. Emilie’s announcing each scene, like a chapter of her life, followed by the actors re-creating them, becomes ho-hum.
However, she strongly delivers this important message: the marquise’s work has survived time and space. Newton’s Principia was published 10 years after Emilie’s death, in 1759, and was reprinted in 1966. It’s the sole French translation of that work, and Emilie’s lasting legacy to generations of women with inquiring minds and world-shattering accomplishments.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-hour play, written by Lauren Gunderson, appearing with the Nora Theatre Company, through Oct. 5, at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge: Wednesdays, Thursdays, at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets start at $15. Call 866-811-4111, visit CentralSquareTheater.org; Group discounts, more information, call 617-578-9278, Ext. 210.