Legacy of Light

By Philip Pearce

THE BEST WAY to describe Legacy of Light, the new play at Western Stage Studio Theater in Salinas, is to say that, true to its title, it’s radiant and it’s expansive. 

We have had a brave new wave of local productions about the wonders of science and mathematics. But where PacRep’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time focused on math and Jewel’s Silent Sky was about astronomy, Legacy of Light sweeps across a vast spectrum that ranges from the solar system to Newtonian physics to the biological implications of deciding to have a baby.    

It’s about two forty-something scientific women who live and work nearly three centuries apart, mathematician Émilie du Châtelet in rationalist 18th century France, and astronomer Olivia in the digital rat-race wonder world of modern America. Each makes a discovery that could expand scientific understanding of her era, each as a result learns important things about herself as a woman.   

If you’re thinking solitary ladies frowning over a scientific breakthrough in a darkened lab full of bubbling beakers, think again. The brilliance of Karen Zacarías’ play lies in the way each of its parallel plots begins with Émilie and Olivia scientifically engaged but up to her neck in family squabbles over whether she should mother a baby. French aristocrat Émilie, who already has a fifteen-year-old daughter, finds herself in a surprise mid-life pregnancy after a fling with a fly-by-night lover half her age. She knows eighteenth century medicine well enough to realize a frightening number of expectant mothers die in childbirth and a majority of babies are either born dead or die as infants.       

Safe in the antibiotic world of the 21st century, Olivia can’t have children at all after battling stage-four ovarian cancer. But she can persuade her accommodating husband Peter to pass on his genes to an eager surrogate applicant named Millie, who will provide them with a child Olivia longs for but realizes she might not live to see into middle school.

So, there are plenty of compelling domestic plot complications, but Zacharías’ script has the maturity, compassion and comic insight to avoid soap opera theatrics. Her academic and theatrical imagination supply the necessary scientific and historic background, Newton to Einstein, using a varied and comic potpourri of theatrical styles. Sometimes we are in a realistic scene of family conflict—Millie battles with her protective big brother Lewis, Émilie matches wits with an argumentative ex-lover of her own generation who turns out to be the celebrity philosopher/novelist Voltaire. But there are also scenes where Voltaire and Émilie address us directly, introducing  historic or literary info we need to know and doing it with the riveting classroom skill of the two best teachers you ever had in high school or college. At a later point we become a New Jersey Girl Scout troop being cajoled by the exuberant Olivia into deciding to become female scientists when we grow up. The characters are so alive and superbly acted that you’re swept along with the facts they offer in support of the script’s carnival of learning.

These shifts in setting, approach and emphasis demand perfect casting and performance. This production has both. Visiting director Ellen Brooks makes adroit, exciting use of six performers playing ten characters, classical and modern, with an energy and accuracy that match the sly shifts and turns of the script

Katherine Adrian and Jeff McGrath are a marvelous Gallic high comedy team, she the gorgeous and witty Émilie, Marquise Du Châtelet, he the celebrated philosopher playwright who may live in hope but no longer enjoys her amorous favors. Try as he may, McGrath’s blustering Voltaire can never knock down Émilie’s startling mathematical proof that the idolized Isaac Newton may have got right about falling apples but was dead wrong when it came to the energy produced by colliding bodies. This fresh insight into a flaw in Newtonian physics supplies Émilie with the memorable reminder that “everything changes, but nothing is lost.”

Melissa Chin-Parker is a well-loved and theatrically informed Western Stage Artistic Program Director but it’s been way too long since she appeared on stage at Hartnell College. In the role of the effervescent but potentially doomed Olivia, she is a total delight, full of a bubbling but uninformed excitement about surrogate parenting that keeps getting sidetracked by her starry-eyed rapture at having possibly discovered a new planet in or around the more familiar territory of our solar system.  

Dennis Hungridge, a welcome newcomer to the Western Stage, doubles effectively in the contrasting roles of Olivia’s long suffering husband Peter and Émilie’s socially hidebound husband, the Marquis Du Châtelet. As Peter, he isn’t quite guileless and accommodating enough to miss getting punched in the nose at one point in the action and later struck down by a bolt of lightning. As the stuffy Du Châtelet, he spearheads a heartless campaign to ignore a promise of scientific studies and impose a loveless marriage on his fifteen year old daughter Pauline, played with winsome naíveté by the engaging Bri Slama, who also takes on the demanding 21st century role of the surrogate mother Millie.

When it comes to defending present day social conventions, there’s nobody more appealingly stubborn than Noah Lucé as her strident brother Lewis. He rages at what he sees as Olivia and Peter’s exploitation of his sister, though she isn’t really the single-minded idealist she pretends to be. In the eighteenth century story, he is the comically bubble-headed royal landscape architect Saint-Lambert, who starts the play and all its troubles by roisterously bedding the all-too-willing Émilie.     

Scene by scene, we move back and forth between 1748 France and 2018 New Jersey, till you begin to wonder whether, interesting as it all is, Legacy of Light should have been written as two separate theme-related one acts. And then things come together in a wistful closing surge of fantasy where characters from way back then join characters from right here and now up in the branches or down in the shadow of a huge apple tree that is the crown jewel of David Parker’s set design. 

Start to finish it’s a feast of ideas and beauty, played to the hilt with a beguiling cello accompaniment supplied by Nona Childress. Even the costumed stage crew who work the swift shifts in time and locale deserved their places in the enthusiastic opening night curtain call.    

Not to be missed. It plays in the Studio Theater through November 11th.