by Cynthia Citron
Nina Sallinen is simply terrific channeling the fiery spirit of Marie Curie. She is sorrowful, angry, demanding, persistent, proud, playful, coquettish, loving, and RADIANT. And that last, in fact, is the title of the play.
Shirley Lauro, the playwright of this intriguing drama, delves into the little-known details of the love affair between the eminent scientist and her lab assistant, Paul Langevin. Little-known now, in the 21st century, but a scandal that made headlines all over the world in the early years of the 20th century.
“Radiant” begins shortly after the death of Marie’s husband, Pierre Curie, in a bizarre accident in Paris. As he was crossing a busy street in the rain he slipped and fell and was run over by the wheel of a horse-drawn cart. His skull was fractured and he died instantly, leaving his wife and two daughters bereft.
Earlier, in 1903, Pierre and Marie had shared the Nobel Prize in Physics and she continued their research until her own death from leukemia in 1934.
In the current play she briefly discusses her discovery of the elements radium and polonium, her isolation of radium isotopes, and her subsequent discoveries in the process that she identifies as “radioactivity”. This work resulted in her award, in 1911, of her second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry.
In Paris, however, she was subjected to numerous indignities. Because she was a “foreigner” (having been born in Warsaw), because she was a woman, and because her maiden name, Sklodowska, was taken to be Jewish, she was reviled by the anti-Semitic French press.
Earlier, she had also been treated badly by her professional peers. After being invited to take over her husband’s chair at the University of Paris, she was subsequently ousted by a committee of men who considered a woman inappropriate for the job, or who wanted the job for themselves. She was also denied membership in the French Academy of Sciences by two negative votes, which still upset her years later.
And things got worse when her affair with Paul Langevin was discovered. Younger than she, he was married, had three children, and wouldn’t divorce because he was Catholic.
The scandal of this clandestine affair resulted in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences requesting that she not come to Sweden to collect her 1911 Nobel Prize and suggesting that she decline to accept it altogether.
Her response was a spirited defense of her work and her indignation at having her personal life included in the evaluation of her professional accomplishments. And of course, she accepted her prize.
The powerful performance by Nina Sallinen is happily augmented by Andrea Flowers, who bubbles through her role as Katarina, a niece who comes to stay with her aunt Marie, by a restrained Conrad Cecil as Paul Langevin, and by the inimitable John Moschitta Jr. who plays five different roles with such panache that you can’t recognize him from one role to the next.
“Radiant” is a gripping play, well staged and directed by Jane Edwina Seymour on a set well designed by Karen Ipock. On a small stage Ipock has managed to suggest a variety of distinct locations, from the plush corner of a pied a terre to a comfortable sitting room to an elaborate laboratory equipped with all manner of instruments, Bunsen burners and the like.
The only disturbing element in this otherwise satisfying production is the number of blackouts between scenes. They occur after scenes that sometimes contain just a few sentences and they are long enough to distance the audience from the ongoing action. Moreover, since there is no movement of anything on the set and almost no costume changes, it remains a mystery as to why the blackouts are so prolonged.
“Radiant” will continue at The Other Space at The Actors Company, 916A North Formosa Ave. in West Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 through November 19. For reservations, call (323) 960-7712 or online at www.Plays411.com/radiant.