6/9/2020 From the Bookshelf: DEEPEN THE MYSTERY: SCIENCE AND THE SOUTH ONSTAGE
(A Collection of Plays by Lauren M. Gunderson)
Atlanta’s pride and joy, playwright Lauren Gunderson, has been the country’s most-produced playwright for two years running now, despite never having a Broadway production of her work and precious little New York City exposure at all. Some would say this is a direct result of her two “Christmas at Pemberly Pride and Prejudice pastiches (Miss Bennet and The Wickhams), and there may be some truth to that. But her plays about science (particularly “forgotten women of science”) like Silent Sky and Ada and the Engine, her plays with a Shakespearean launching point (The Book of Will, The Taming), and her ability to create compelling characters and stories, not to mention her flair for memorable dialogue and theatrical flourish, have at least as much to do with her success.
Way back in 2005, iUniverse Inc decided to publish a volume of three of her early plays, all of which had Atlanta productions well before the rest of the country began to notice. It’s taken me this long to “catch up” with this volume, and that was because of an accident – I was browsing Amazon for other more recent Gunderson plays, and it just appeared, as if by a barely noticed movement on a star photograph or a superfluous line of code in an early machine program.
As expected, these are plays evidently written by an artist early in her career, as they are rife with typos (I blame the iUniverse copy editors for that) and with hints of “new writer” clumsiness, but, they are all fascinating reads, containing themes of science, love, and art, that Ms. Gunderson would make
a hallmark of her career. That they also contain starkly memorable characters and dialogue are an early indicator of her already exiting talent.
I’m only sorry I missed the Atlanta productions of them way back when.
Leap, first produced by Theatre Emory in 2004, is a look at Isaac Newton as he grapples with unifying physics, mathematics and calculus. It is also a supernatural love story, as it is filtered through the characters of two sisters, Brightman and Maria Bains, who seem to drift through history, latching on to men (and perhaps women) of genius, being the literal muse to focus thought and work to produce what they already know will be produced. More to the point, they know what discoveries will ensue “on the shoulders” of Newton, and struggle to refrain from upending the timeline by teaching him too much too soon. That Brightman falls in love with Newton only serves to add to this entertaining tapestry of love, games, art, and calculus.
Background, first produced by the Essential Theatre Festival in 2004 (and winner of that years Essential Playwrighting Award), is about Dr. Ralph Alpher, who first (1948) hypothesized the process of nucleosynthesis in the early universe (minutes after the Big Bang), calculating and predicting the temperature of the “Background Radiation” of the Expanding Universe. His calculations were borne out in 1964 when more advanced equipment was available to actually measure the background radiation. The 1964 scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. Alpher was not even mentioned. Bitter? According to Background, very much so. Ms. Gunderson uses Dr. Asher to vividly show us the intertwining of discovery and recognition, to show how inspiration is nothing if it is forgotten. She also shows us how recognition can actually be undeserved --Penzias is a character in the play and Gunderson has him describe himself as “a mere engineer, not a scientist.”
She also cleverly tells her story backwards, beginning with Alpher’s heart attack on the eve of the Nobel’s presentation, then going back to his original dissertation. Supposedly to reflect the process of studying the universe’s origin (start with the now and work your way back to the beginning), it has the dramatic effect of emphasizing root triggers of the reactions and incidents we have already seen. Some of the “jumps back” are years, others mere minutes, and all are shepherded by two mysterious figures in grey, who take on all the roles apart from Alpher’s wife and daughter.
Finally, Parts They Call Deep, first produced by the Essential Theatre Festival in 2001 (and winner of that years Essential Playwrighting Award), is a tight domestic comedy/drama, in which three generations of women try to escape the ruins of their lives by hopping in a Winnebago and taking a road trip from Virginia to Florida. Sarah’s husband has left her for a younger woman, and her brother has recently died. Her mother, Bea, is in mourning for her son, and has brought him along in a flamboyant urn that reflects the flamboyant life he led. And Sarah’s daughter Emma is a teenager, resentful of her mother uprooting her life, ever dreaming of reconciling her parents, and constantly writing, whether in her journal or in letters to movie stars.
As they approach Florida, hurricane warnings become more urgent, and it leads to an emotional whirlwind as they (semi-sorta) bond and rage. All along the way, they intersect with a character named “Alex,” who, at different times, is Emma’s boyfriend, Sarah’s husband, or Bea’s son. This is a striking play about the ebbs and tensions and affections within a family of women, and how the men in their lives are integral but not important (or is that important but not integral?). Sure they’ll survive without these men (maybe even thrive), but why would they want to? And the metaphorical storm that greets them on the sands of Florida just reminds them that the turmoil they leave behind will somehow get to where they’re going long before they do. This is a funny, gripping, and moving play, and it has the added flourish of being a love letter to love letters, to poetry, and to writing in general.
I’ve often written about how Ms. Gunderson is one of my favorite playwrights, about how I look forward with rabid joy at any new work that crosses our stages. This collection is an opportunity to catch up with her early work, the formative efforts that laid the groundwork of her more familiar plays, even the “Christmas at Pemberly” series. I was glad to have read them, and hope someone brings one (or all) of them back to life on out stages.
For the record, and not to drip hints of any kind, but I believe they could work in this new-fangled Zoom video format with minimal tweaking. Something to think about.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #DeepenTheMystery #LaurenGunderson)
Ms. Gunderson’s Website: http://laurengunderson.com/