Genesis Theatrical Productions presents the Chicago premiere of The Radiant, written by Shirley Lauro and directed by Kaitlin Taylor. Set in Paris in the early twentieth century, The Radiant tells the story of the later part of the life of Marie Curie, a brilliant, two-time Nobel Prize-winning scientist whose work with radiation became a cornerstone of contemporary chemistry and led to the first cure for cancer.
This play shares much in common with Silent Sky, recently produced by First Folio Theatre, in that the script aims to shed light on the life of an undercelebrated woman scientist and gets far too caught up in depicting that woman’s romantic relationship with a man, giving their love stories equal weight with their scientific discoveries, a move that inherently undermines the plays’ mission.
Sure, Curie’s relationship with her assistant Paul Langevin is historical fact, and sure, it’s worth noting that in her time, Curie’s accomplishments were briefly overshadowed by the scandalous reveal of her affair with a married man, a fact that highlights both the despicable sexism Curie faced and her refusal to be defeated by it. But it seems disingenuous to center her story on the tired cliché of forbidden love rather than, say, two Nobel prizes and the first cure for cancer, especially when the actor playing Paul (James McGuire) has so little charm and he and Curie (Debbie Ruzicka) have such little chemistry together. Furthermore, playwright Shirley Lauro doesn’t seem to trust her audience with much scientific detail; Curie’s fascinating and revolutionary experiments with radiation are only explained on the most surface level, leaving me craving more in-depth information about Curie’s actual work.
Lack of attention to scientific detail fails the play again when it comes to props, designed by Harrison Ornelas. In what is arguably the most important scene of the play, in which Curie finally isolates metal radium, firmly proving her and her husband’s theory of radiation, not only are all the liquids used in the experiment left to the audience’s imagination, but generic glass containers stand in for realistic-looking scientific equipment. It is disappointing, to say to the least, to watch a scene in which the characters place an emphasis on pouring exactly 200 milliliters of a substance—while holding containers with no milliliter markings.
The Radiant is not all bad. Debbie Ruzicka, in addition to bearing a striking resemblance to the actual Curie, delivers a magnificent acting performance, bringing intelligence and determination to the complex central character, as well as stubbornness, curiosity, shyness, bravery, and fear in turn. Chloe Dzielak, who plays Curie’s niece Katarina, has a delightfully vivacious stage presence, and the scenes between her and Ruzicka are, without question, the best parts of the show. One almost wonders if the play would have been better served by making the relationship between these two women (which is not without its conflicts and complexities) the central dynamic of the show, rather than that of Curie and Paul.
The Radiant has a noble goal: glorifying the achievements of one of the most extraordinary women in science, a woman who even today is too often overshadowed by her male counterparts. With Debbie Ruzicka in the lead and Chloe Dzielak at her side, the play has potential to do exactly that, but it falls short in its fascination with Curie’s run-of-the-mill affair with an even more run-of-the-mill man. The world needs more plays about women scientists—but it needs them to spend less time and energy on men.
Dates: May 18 – June 11, 2017
Times: Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3 pm.
Location: Athenaeum Theatre, Studio One, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago
Ticket prices: $32; seniors and students $17. Tickets on sale now at the Athenaeum Theatre website or 773-935-6875.
All photos by Ron Goldman.