Alan Alda’s ‘Radiance’ shines with intelligence

Women everywhere owe a debt to Marie Sklowdowska-Curie and actor Alan Alda has written in intelligent, lively play about the first female professor at the University or Paris and the first person to received two Nobel Prizes. The play, “Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie,” is currently the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse.

Curie was a brilliant scientist when women weren’t supposed to be brilliant. Consider how hard that must have been. Born in Poland, she left to study in Paris, joining her sister, Bronislawa.

Behind in Poland, Marie left her first love: Kazimierz Zorawski. Zorawski was a Polish mathematician (1866-1953). Marie had been working as a governess because the family had lost all their lands and monies during national uprisings and she had agreed to support Bronislawa during her studies in exchange for the same later. The Zorawskis were the second position she took and were relatives of her father. The family disapproved of Marie and Marie soon lost her position there, moving on to another family for a year. She would return home for a while before joining her sister in Paris in 1891.

The play begins in 1898. Marie had already met Pierre Curie in 1894. They married in 1895. We find them in a “miserable old shed,” where they are working together. Marie comments that Pierre gives her courage because “you think every man would want me to want what I want.” And what Marie wants is to explore radiation.

As Marie, Anna Gunn affects a Polish accented English. We sense a real emotional connection between Marie and John De Lancie’s Pierre. They respect each other’s intelligence and yet sometimes, that intellectual snobbery prevents them from using common sense.

Modern audiences know that radiation kills, but the heat generated seemed to be a good thing if one neglected mice dying from overexposure, and the Curies’ bleeding fingers. And what about the burn on Pierre’s arm? Marie and Pierre regard it with scientific detachment.

In the Curies circle of scientist friends, it is the less educated Jeanne Langevin (Sarah Zimmerman), who provides the voice of reason, and juxtaposed with our knowledge of (ionizing) radiation, the clear lack of common sense is the source of dry humor in this play.

And yet,  Zimmerman’s  Jeanne is also the heavy or mean girl in this play. Zimmerman makes her humorous and bitterly angry.

After Pierre dies from an accident in 1906 at the age of 46, Marie finds comfort in the arms of Paul Langevin (Dan Donohue), a notable physicist who studied under Pierre. And on the eve of her second Nobel Prize, Marie is caught up in a scandal when Jeanne makes the affair public.

One forgets that Marie was also a mother, but Alda’s script reminds us of this although we never see them. Determined, she did go on after leaving Paul and because Alda has all the actors remain on stage, it’s as if Pierre is always watching over her. Thomas Lynch’s set design–a rough black wall of rock–reminds us that the pitchblende and chalcolite that the Curies researched and its mining–isn’t a pretty matter and foreshadows the darker aspects of radiation.

The play leaves Curie alone in 1911–before World War I or World War II.

For the curious, here’s a bit of an epilogue of historical fact.

Curies’ daughter is mentioned a few times in the play and Irene Curie would marry Frederic Joliot and they would hyphenate their names as Joliot-Curie and win a Nobel Prize jointly.

Paul Langevin would be her doctoral advisor. Irene and Frederic’s daughter, would also be a nuclear physicist and marry Langevin’s grandson, Michel, also a nuclear physicist.

Marie died in 1934 (66) of aplastic anemia resulting from her exposure to radiation. She often carried test tubes of radioactive material in her pocket, perhaps seduced by the material’s bluish glowing in the dark.

Irene Joliot-Curie died of leukemia in 1956 at 58 years of age.

You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate “Radiance” and the production under the direction of Daniel Sullivan is a provocative look into the life of a scientific and feminist pioneer. In his debut as a playwright, Alda shows he has a talent for words; it’s a promising beginning to a new career.  Although this is on the other side of town, with Caltech and JPL in the Pasadena area, I felt there should be an interest in the community, enough to travel over to the West side.

“Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie” continues until 18 December 2011 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, (Westwood) Los Angeles, California.

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