Two women's passionate drive to understand the nature of the universe and the mysteries of motherhood unite them across the centuries in playwright Karen Zacarias' time-hopping play, Legacy of Light, opening this week by theater group On the Verge.
In Enlightenment-era France, 42-year-old physicist Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, or Émilie du Châtelet, for short, is on the verge of major discoveries about heat and light. She is also rushing to finish scientific experiments as well as her most notable work — the translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica — before she risks her life in childbirth.
Three centuries later, a 42-year-old New Jersey scientist, Octavia, longing for a child of her own, is on the cusp of discovering a planet in its infancy as she grapples with becoming a mother via surrogacy.
Faced with obstacles unique to women, like how Émilie must publish her translation under longtime friend and sometime lover Voltaire's name (with a dedication to her), the pair's struggles become increasingly connected in a play that is heavy on technology and magical realism.
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"The two stories parallel and then, as Einstein predicted, time starts to get chaotic," says the play's director, Ave Lawyer. "Things start to touch and come together and it's quite beautiful."
Like many of On the Verge's previous productions, Legacy of Light is a site-specific production that features meaty roles for women, but the technical bells and whistles that Legacy of Light requires are new to them. Lawyer tapped some of the area's top designers to create the time-traveling magic with sophisticated projectors, lighting, intricate costuming, original soundscapes and more.
"The only tech we had to deal with before was turning on the lights," jokes Lawyer, who adds that the group waited until it had sufficient funding before mounting Legacy of Light, which Lawyer discovered in 2011.
"There was no way at the time we were in any position to do justice to it," says Lawyer, "so we just waited."
The four-year wait gave Lawyer time to find the right cast, which she says took over a year to confirm.
"This play is very light on its feet," says Lawyer. "It's cinematic in its structure, with people playing multiple roles, so you've got to have actors who are really seasoned, who don't have to take the time to get into a scene. From the minute it begins, there's no pausing or reflecting, it's a roller coaster ride all the way to the end."
One of those carefully cast actors is Rachel Rogers, who also serves as the artistic director at Balagula Theatre.
Rogers plays Émilie, a leap from the young ingenue roles that she frequently plays. Her research into the role led her to David Bodanis' book, Passionate Minds: The Great Enlightenment Love Affair, which chronicles letters between her character and Voltaire.
"Émilie was the scientific mind, while Voltaire was the poet philosopher," Rogers says. "The science was hers, but the world couldn't know it because she was a woman."
Voltaire described Émilie in a letter to King Frederick II of Prussia as "a great man whose only fault was being a woman."
Rogers says exploring the challenges facing Émilie's scientific work, and especially how she faced that challenge as a mother, opened up a "beautiful new frontier of feelings" for her.
"Within the play, I go through an entire pregnancy and parent a teenage daughter," says Rogers. "I've reached out to family members, friends, and women of the theatre community to explore the physical and emotional reality of motherhood. Bringing that vast love that is simultaneously so personal and yet universal to the scene work has been such a delicious challenge."