Legacy of Light, the latest play by On the Verge theater group, opens with a steamy French love affair and a sword fight between two poets: a middle aged Voltaire and a hot blooded youth, Saint-Lambert.
If audiences hadn't read a synopsis of Karen Zacarias' play, they would think they were sinking into a sultry, sumptuous period piece rather than a time-bending drama that is at once a love letter to scientific inquiry as well a moving reflection on the mystery of motherhood.
And partly, they are. Scenic designers Tom Willis and Ave Lawyer, who also directs the show, transformed the performance space at ArtsPlace into two definitive yet relative worlds: one with the rich trappings of Enlightenment Era French aristocracy, the other the sleek lines of a contemporary New Jersey home. Both are ensconced within sweeping, draped walls which serve as backdrops for video projections of rotating stars and equations, among other scenic effects.
The result is a sense that while audiences are bouncing back and forth between the world of pioneering scientist Emilie du Chatelet and modern day astrophysicist Olivia, they eventually merge in a timeless, in-between world where characters can relate across space and time.
The show is a visual delight, particularly Ami B. Shupe's exquisite period costuming. But it is the all-star cast of some of the area's top talent which elevates the play to excellence. The ensemble achingly conveys the human side of its theoretical musings with mystery, humor, pathos and inspiration.
Rachel Lee Rogers is a commanding but elegant force in her role as Emilie du Chatelet. Modern audiences aren't used to seeing a woman wearing decadent 18th century gowns while surrounded by stacks of equations and a telescope, let alone watching as her bodice grows round with pregnancy. Rogers paints du Chatelet not as a woman focused the political aim of tearing down society's barriers to women — although history says she certainly did challenge conventions — but as a just regular person (albeit an extraordinary one) trying to do her best work.
The play isn't, thankfully, a one-note commentary on the role of women in science (which it could feel like in lesser hands) but rather focuses on the individual plight of the women themselves.
Take Robbie Morgan's role as Olivia, a contemporary astrophysicist and cancer survivor who easily takes the lead discovering the birth of a new planet, but must face her own vulnerabilities and fears as she faces impending motherhood via a surrogate. Morgan's emotional range is impressive, as is her ability to weave levity and humor throughout scenes of her struggles.
If Emilie and Olivia represent the past and present, Millie, the young woman who has her own reasons for becoming Olivia's surrogate, represents the future. Shelby Marie Vogelpohl makes an understated splash as the level-headed youth with plenty of promise ahead of her.
One of the threads woven throughout all three women's roles, in addition to different variations of motherhood, is their unnerving confidence and capability. When Voltaire catches Emilie in the middle of a love affair with a younger man, she doesn't deny it and is not ashamed, but is wildly amused by his discovery. Olivia can easily convey the history of what we know about the universe in under two minutes. Millie saves her family from financial ruin. We see the depths of their struggles, yes, but we also get to perceive the scope and impact of their talents.
The men are literally — and quite refreshingly — supportive in their supporting roles. Tom Phillips, Timothy Hull, and Zachary Dearing turn in smart, inspired, solid performances as Emilie's lover, Olivia's husband, and Emilie's other lover, respectively, in addition to other minor characters. Rare is a play about women in which men are not somehow the source of their conflict. Not so, in this case. The male characters are entirely supportive of the women in their lives. The driving conflict is between each woman and herself, a rare and welcome delight.