3/30/2022 LEGACY OF LIGHT Synchronicity Theatre
(THIS IS A PREVIEW, NOT A REVIEW. I was supposed to see this production, but a fever sidelined me, and my heinous and demanding calendar won’t release me for any remaining performances. That being said, in 2011 Horizon Theatre produced it, and I dredged up this Candide pastiche in its honor. I share it today in the hopes it will give you a sense of this play and an urge to see Synchronicity’s production of it.
If you have the inclination, you should consider this a “Book Report” of Ms. Zacarias’ script.)
In the country of France, in the estate of the writer and philosopher Voltaire, lived a woman whom nature had endowed with a most curious disposition. Her face was the true index of her mind. She had a solid judgment joined to the most unaffected optimism; and hence, I presume, she had the name of Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet.
She believed she lived in the best of possible worlds, writing and loving and challenging the greatest minds of her generation. And yet, one of the brutal facts of life in her world was that, when older women become pregnant, they invariably die. So, when, at the age of 42, she conceives a child with her young lover (the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert), she knows she has only nine months to complete her life’s work.
In the country of America, in the Garden State of New Jersey, lived a woman of extraordinary intelligence and accomplishment. Her face was the true index of her mind. Left sterile by a bout with ovarian cancer (now in remission), she nevertheless contracted with a surrogate to bear her husband’s child; and hence, I presume, she had the name of Olivia.
She believed she lived in the best of possible worlds, writing and loving and challenging the greatest minds of her generation. And yet, one of the brutal facts of life in her world is that, when working women become mothers, their careers invariably die. So, when, in the prime of her career, her husband conceives a child with a young surrogate, she knows she has only nine months to complete her life’s work.
In Karen Zacarías’ remarkable play Legacy of Light, now being given a production by Synchronicity Theatre, the lives of these two extraordinary women, separated by almost three centuries, collide and collude, two seemingly dissimilar stories approaching synchronicity, held together by a common love of science and knowledge, by a passion for life, and by an optimism in the face of absurdly pessimistic circumstances. And unifying it all is the droll commentary of Voltaire and his almost-bitter condemnation of such optimism that reached fruition in Candide written ten years after the Marquise du Châtelet’s death.
Ms. Zacarías first encountered Émilie du Châtelet in a footnote while she was researching her children’s play Einstein is a Dummy. Einstein cited Émilie as “one of the ‘forefathers’ of E=MC ²,” and, indeed, during those last nine months of her life, Mme. du Châtelet theorized about the nature of light and the relationship between matter and energy. During these fecund nine months, she also produced the definitive French translation of Isaac Newton's work Principia Mathematica, even as she was building on (and, at times, contradicting) Newton’s famous laws.
And Ms. Zacarias is not the only playwright to discover the Marquise. Also in 2011, Atlanta favorite Lauren Gunderson wrote the play Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, which received a 2013 cracker-jack production by the Weird Sisters Project, a production we raved about in equal measure to our previous praise for Legacy of Light.
But, leaving all this fascinating science and history and dramaturgy aside, this is primarily a story about parenthood and about relationships. Émilie “plays” with the young Saint-Lambert even while she enjoys a long-term relationship with Voltaire (the play opens with a comically energetic duel between her two lovers). She also has an almost-grown daughter, Pauline, whom she is ready to “sell” into marriage to ensure a safe (and prosperous) future for the girl. Three centuries later, Olivia is married to Peter, a nurturing teacher who, she fears, will be a better “mother” than she will ever be. Still she bonds with the surrogate, Millie, and struggles to assume all those “motherly” qualities she considers anathema to her life as a scientist.
In an intriguing sub-plot, we also see the relationship between Millie and her doting brother Lewis, how they have reacted to their mother’s recent death, and how Millie’s choice to bear Peter and Olivia’s child affects their relationship.
How all these stories eventually collide and intersect is one of the joys of this play, so I leave that discovery to you.
Here is the cast and creative team for Synchronicity Theatre’s (sadly missed by me) production:
Olivia / Wet Nurse Haliya Roberts
Emilie Sarah Elizabeth Wallis
Voltaire Reese Smith
Peter / M. du Châtelet Josh Brook
St. Lambert / Lewis Benedetto Robinson
Pauline / Millie Lizzy Liu
Swings Emily Nedvidek / Paul McLain
Director Rachel May
Set Designer Gabrielle Stephenson
Costume Designer Jordan Jaked Carrier
Lighting Designer Elisabeth Cooper
Sound Designer Kacie Willis
Props Designer Chase Weaver
Video Designer Kimberly Binns
Fight & Intimacy Director Kristin Storla
Stage Manager Dionna D. Davis
(Apologies to the assistants and crew members I neglected to mention)
Before closing out with another Voltaire pastiche, I have to comment on a certain similarity between this play and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Both plays concern science and are told using a single set in two different periods. When I first heard the description of this play, Arcadia came to mind immediately. Yet, when I saw this in 2011, I wasn’t reminded of the Stoppard play at all, which, of course, I had to re-read just to figure out why. Leaving aside Stoppard’s marvelous facility for language and vivid characters, unlike Legacy of Light, Arcadia is an historical detective story – modern writers piece together what happened while we see the actual events unfold in counterpoint. As is typical in many Stoppard plays, the relationships are cold and cerebral and almost secondary to the talk of Literature and History and “Life.”
Here, the relationships are central. The juxtaposition of the two eras serves to build a compellingly universal theme of parenthood and learning and optimism. Truth to tell, this way of telling the story may not have worked without Stoppard’s earlier work, so I see it more as a “building on” of the technique than as a blind copying of it. And, of course, to those unfamiliar with Arcadia, it is totally irrelevant.
So, as Pangloss may have said to Madame du Châtelet after her death:
"There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been deprived of a fine life for the love of Saint-Lambert; had you not been ignored by the French Academy; had you not betrothed your daughter to that Italian ancient; you would not have been here to watch Olivia’s child being born."
"Excellently observed," answered I; "but let us cultivate our garden."
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #SynchroTheatre #LegacyOfLight)