I am a sucker for history plays. Though they are not always accurate they do provide insight into the person who is the subject of the piece. In the case of Radiance at the Geffen, Alan Alda, yes that Alan Alda, has written a play about Madame Curie. Alda has long had a fascination with science and had an award-winning series, The Human Spark, on PBS. He also appeared as physicist Richard Feynman in the play QED. For his efforts to promote science he was awarded the National Science Board’s Public Service Award.
Alda is more than a science geek. He knows drama and comedy, and has written five feature films including The Four Seasons and The Seduction of Joe Tynan. His play Radiance, currently at the Geffen Playhouse, covers the years between 1898 and 1911. We meet workaholic Marie (the wonderful Anna Gunn) and her husband Pierre (John de Lancie) as they first discover a new element, radium. For this discovery Marie earns her first Nobel Prize in Physics along with her husband and physicist Henri Becquerel. The Nobel Committee did not allow her to accept the award on the podium since, in their mind, a man must have done all the work.
After Pierre died from radium poisoning Marie eventually took up with physicist Paul Langevin (the marvelous Dan Donahue). Paul was married and much younger than she so she was labeled a “home wrecker” and because of xenophobia she was also labeled (falsely) a Jew.
Marie Curie labored all her life to get out from under other people’s prejudices, jealousy, and misogyny. Nevertheless she won her next Nobel Prize alone, this time in Chemistry. She is the only woman to have won two Nobels and the only woman to be nominated in two different fields. Madame Curie died of radium poisoning in 1934 but her influence is still widely felt. Her studies of radium and radioactivity led to their use in cancer treatment.
I enjoyed the play very much, especially the actors. Besides Gunn and Donahue, Sarah Zimmerman was also a standout as Langevin’s estranged wife. I also enjoyed de Lancie, Hugo Armstrong as Emile Borel, Natasha Roi as Marguerite Borel, and Leonard Kelly-Young in the dual roles of Tornebladh and Terbougie. Dan Sullivan did his usual straightforward directing which enabled the actors to shine. I had some trouble with some of Alda’s writing, as it seemed a bit contemporary and at times gag-prone, and also with the decision to allow Gunn to use a fake Polish accent seeing that no one else had an accent.
Radiance plays at the Geffen Playhouse through Dec. 18.
Photo credit: Michael Lamont