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Legacy of Light

a Atlanta Premiere
by Karen Zacarías

COMPANY : Horizon Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Horizon Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
ID# 4005

SHOWING : April 07, 2011 - March 08, 2011



American Theatre Critics Association Steinberg New Play Citation, 2010

A comic quest for love and legacy across time. It’s the best of all possible worlds for Émilie, brilliant physicist and lover to Voltaire. But pregnant at 42 and fearing she will die in child birth, she races to complete her research. Meanwhile, present day scientist Olivia, unable to conceive, arranges for a surrogate who pulls together past and present in an unexpected and stellar collision.

“…entertaining new comedy” - Variety

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by Dedalus
Thursday, May 5, 2011
In the country of France, in the estate of the writer and philosopher Voltaire, lived a woman whom nature had endowed with a most curious disposition. Her face was the true index of her mind. She had a solid judgment joined to the most unaffected optimism; and hence, I presume, she had her name of Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet.

She believed she lived in the best of possible worlds, writing and loving and challenging the greatest minds of her generation. And yet, one of the brutal facts of life in her world was that, when older women become pregnant, they invariably die. So, when, at the age of 42, she conceives a child with her young lover (the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert), she knows she has only nine months to complete her life’s work.

In the country of America, in the Garden State of New Jersey, lived a woman of extraordinary intelligence and accomplishment. Her face was the true index of her mind. Left sterile by a bout with ovarian cancer (now in remission), she nevertheless contracted with a surrogate to bear her husband’s child; and hence, I presume, she had her name of Olivia.

She believed she lived in the best of possible worlds, writing and loving and challenging the greatest minds of her generation. And yet, one of the brutal facts of life in her world is that, when working women become mothers, their careers invariably die. So, when, in the prime of her career, her husband conceives a child with a young surrogate, she knows she has only nine months to complete her life’s work.

In Karen Zacarías’ marvelous play “Legacy of Light,” now being given a near-perfect production by Horizon Theatre, the lives of these two extraordinary women, separated by almost three centuries, collide and collude, two seemingly dissimilar stories approaching synchronicity, held together by a common love of science and knowledge, by a passion for life, and by an optimism in the face of absurdly pessimistic circumstances. And unifying it all is the droll commentary of Voltaire and his almost-bitter condemnation of such optimism that reached fruition in “Candide,” written ten years after Mme. du Châtelet’s death.

Ms. Zacarías first encountered Émilie du Châtelet in a footnote while she was researching her children’s play “Einstein is a Dummy.” Einstein cited Émilie as “one of the ‘forefathers’ of E=MC ²,” and, indeed, during those last nine months of her life, Mme. du Châtelet theorized about the nature of light and the relationship between matter and energy. During these fecund nine months, she also produced the definitive French translation of Isaac Newton's work Principia Mathematica, even as she was building on (and, at times, contradicting) Newton’s famous laws.

But, leaving all this fascinating science and history aside, this is primarily a story about parenthood and about relationships. Émilie “plays” with the young Saint-Lambert even while she enjoys a long-term relationship with Voltaire (the play opens with a comically energetic duel between her two lovers). She also has an almost-grown daughter, Pauline, who she is ready to “sell” into marriage to ensure a safe (and prosperous) future for the girl. Olivia is married to Peter, a nurturing teacher who, she fears, will be a better “mother” than she will ever be. Still she bonds with the surrogate, Millie, and struggles to assume all those “motherly” qualities she considers anathema to her life as a scientist.

In an intriguing sub-plot, we also see the relationship between Millie and her doting brother Lewis, how they have reacted to their mother’s recent death, and how Millie’s choice to bear Peter and Olivia’s child affects their relationship.

How all these stories eventually collide and intersect is one of the joys of this play, so I leave that discovery to you.

Another one of the joys of the play is how this incredible cast falls into these roles and makes them come alive. Leigh Campbell-Taylor (last year’s “Shooting Star”) is just perfect as Émilie, finding equal pleasures in frolicking with Saint-Lambert and sparring with Voltaire. It is a subtle, wide-ranging performance that brings alive this criminally little-know historical figure in ways that drive the play from beginning to end.

Lane Carlock is every bit her equal as Olivia, confident and passionate when lecturing girl scouts about the universe or crowing about her discovery of a “planet in gestation.” Yet, when the plot turns towards motherhood, she shows a panic and vulnerability that is as recognizable as it is compelling.

Allan Edwards bring Voltaire to fiery life and sends him shooting through both stories like a meteor about to strike. He displays all the wit and intelligence we’d expect from Voltaire, as well as some attractive self-deprecation and commentary on our contemporary world.

Doubling in both stories are Robin Bloodworth (as Peter and the Marquis du Châtelet), Kate Donadio (as Mille and Pauline), and Corey Bradberry (as Lewis and Saint-Lambert). All three are absolutely marvelous, sometimes requiring split-second costume/character changes, always making clear the connections between the characters they are playing (and yes, there are very specific plot reasons for the doubling in addition to the obvious thematic reasons).

Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have designed a set that lets the action zip smoothly from scene to scene and from century to century. Isaac Newton’s apocryphal apple tree hangs over all, with spheres floating overhead like planets (or apples). The furnishings seem right at home in both periods, and the 18th-century costumes (by Joanna Schmink) are intricately detailed and lovely to look at. (Favorite line – when a contemporary character asks Voltaire if everyone in France dresses like he does, his response of “Yes” is both hilariously funny and oddly accurate.) And, all is directed by Susan Reid with her typical flair for pacing, ensemble building, and conceptualization.

Before closing out with another Voltaire pastiche, I have to comment on a certain similarity between this play and Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” Both plays concern science and are told using a single set in two different periods. When I first heard the description of this play, “Arcadia” came to mind immediately. Yet, while watching this, I wasn’t reminded of the Stoppard play at all, which, of course, I had to re-read just to figure out why. Leaving aside Stoppard’s marvelous facility for language and vivid characters, unlike “Legacy of Light,” “Arcadia” is an historical detective story – modern writers piece together what happened while we see the actual events unfold in counterpoint. As is typical in many Stoppard plays, the relationships are cold and cerebral and almost secondary to the talk of Literature and History and “Life.”

Here, the relationships are central. The juxtaposition of the two eras serves to build a compellingly universal theme of parenthood and learning and optimism. Truth to tell, this way of telling the story may not have worked without Stoppard’s earlier work, so I see it more as a “building on” of the technique than as a blind copying of it. And, of course, to those unfamiliar with “Arcadia,” it is totally irrelevant.

So, as Pangloss may have said to Madame du Châtelet after her death:

"There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been deprived of a fine life for the love of Saint-Lambert; had you not been ignored by the French Academy; had you not betrothed your daughter to that Italian ancient; you would not have been here to watch Olivia’s child being born."

"Excellently observed," answered Dedalus; "but let us cultivate our garden."

-- Brad Rudy (BK



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