Delicate Particle Logic - Flat Earth Theatre

Delicate Particle Logic - Flat Earth Theatre

 Pictured: Christine Power and Thomas Grenon

Pictured: Christine Power and Thomas Grenon

Delicate Particle Logic – Flat Earth Theatre

Review by James Wilkinson 

Delicate Particle Logic is presented by Flat Earth Theatre. Written by Jennifer Blackmer. Directed by Betsy S. Goldman. Set Designer: Darren Cornell. Costume Designer: Elizabeth Krah. Lighting Designer: PJ Strachman. Projection Designer: Christine A. Banna. Assistant Projection Designer: Jenny DeMarines. Sound Designer: Brad Smith. Props Designer: Jacklyn Boyland. Graphic Designer: Jake Scaltreto. Dramaturg: Regine Vital.

 

The fact that Flat Earth Theatre’s production of Delicate Particle Logic is opening the same week that the Nobel Prize announcements are being made is either a beautiful accident of theatrical serendipity or an absolutely ingenious marketing ploy. As I sit here writing this, the Nobel committee has announced that one of the recipients for this year’s Physics prize is Donna Strickland “for her method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses.” (Don’t ask me what that means, I very nearly flunked high school physics.) In the award’s hundred-plus year history, this is only the third time that the prize has been awarded to a woman. Surely Flat Earth’s production team couldn’t have known this was going to happen…right?  

Why is this so particularly relevant? Well, because as you may be able to surmise from the title, this is a play about scientific pursuit. Except, that’s not quite right. This is also a play about art, about passion, about history, about memory, about gender inequality, about Anti-Semitism, about love, about guilt, about collective responsibility, about truth. One of the impressive things about Jennifer Blackmer’s play is just how many plates she sets spinning before managing to pull it all together into a cohesive work. Her flash point of inspiration is perhaps one of the most significant scientific discoveries made in the twentieth century: the discovery of nuclear fission which made weapons like the H-bomb possible. But her focus here isn’t so much the hard science (though there’s plenty of that as well), as it is the people behind the discovery. We often see people who work in the arts and the sciences as diametrically opposed with little to no crosspollination. Artists are people of passion; scientists are methodical. Part of what Blackmer’s script tries to do is find the artist within the scientist.

The play opens years after the discovery of nuclear fission with a visit between two women, the artist Edith Hahn (Barbara Douglass) and the physicist Lise Meitner (Christine Powers). Both are real-life figures connected by Otto Hahn (Thomas Grenon), who is Edith’s husband, Lise’s colleague and the man who would eventually be awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in splitting the atom. As the two talk, they compare notes about the man they knew, sometimes filling in for each other. The larger story begins to take shape, leading the audience up to that cataclysmic event.

I probably watched about the first third of the production with something of a raised eyebrow. It appeared as though these two women were being put together simply to tell the story of this man that they both cared for and achieved so much. Lise talks about how she began working for Otto at a German institute. Edith tells the story of how she agreed to marry him. Something about the scenario didn’t quite ring true for me. Then the play twists and reveals that the true central figure of the play is in fact Lise Meitner. More specifically, it’s Lise seen through the eyes of Edith. Since I’m unfamiliar with the history of physics, (see that failing grade in high school), I did not know about Meitner, who was an respected physicist in her own right and who many feel should have been co-awarded Hahn’s Nobel Prize for her contributions to the work, (hence why this year’s announcement was so relevant). Blackmer’s play, then, is something of a course correction, illuminating the story of a woman who was passionately dedicated to scientific inquiry.  

I think a large part of the success of Flat Eath’s production (and it succeeds brilliantly) comes down to the performances by its two leads, Christine Powers and Barbara Douglas. As Lise and Edith, the two actresses give performances whose energies complement each other in a yin yang type of way. As the artist, Edith, Douglas is full of doe-eyed wonder, contrasted with the much more direct and exacting energy radiated by Power’s scientist Lise. The most powerful moments in the play come when those energies seem to infect each other. As Lise tells the story of discovering nuclear fission, Powers sweeps the audience up in the process, making her joy in the scientific process palpable. Even if you don’t understand all of the science behind the moment, it’s thrilling to watch because you can connect the joy to your own passions in life. That identification is key. 

The idea of basing a play on two historical figures meeting isn’t especially new. But because we’re diving into the memories of these two characters, Blackmer is able to pull some narrative tricks that give the convention some new edge. We occasionally watch the same scene twice either because the characters disagree with how events played out or they can’t remember what actually happened. The unreliability of the narrators makes a confrontation towards the end of the play somewhat heartbreaking when you consider that the real-life figures probably never got that resolution.

Director Betsy S. Goldman gives the play a very tight, dynamic staging. Between the unreliable narrators, the historical context and the science being presented, there’s a lot going on. But Goldman’s direction never lets the audience feel overwhelmed. She also manages to find a way, thanks in part to the beautiful work of projection designer Christine A. Banna, to make interior character moments are made visible so that they fill the stage and envelop the audience. A fantastic supporting cast surrounds the two leads with Thomas Grenon as Otto Hahn and Matt Arnold and Michael Lin portraying an army of supporting characters.  

It wasn’t long into the performance that I realized that I was settling down into my seat. I think that I subconsciously started doing this because I realized that I could relax. I was in exceptionally good hands. Flat Earth’s production is a really solid, intelligent and warm piece of work. And as this week’s Nobel announcement makes clear, the story of women’s contributions to science don’t often get celebrated. I suggest you enjoy it while it’s here.

Delicate Particle Logic is presented by Flat Earth Theatre at the Black Box at the Mosesian Center for the Arts.

For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.flatearththeatre.com

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