With the Right 'Light' Touch, Arena Comedy Bears True Fruit
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
In the imaginatively fertile universe of Karen Zacaras's sweet new play, "Legacy of Light," birth raises all manner of terrifying possibilities. For milie du Chtelet, an 18th-century French scientist, middle-age pregnancy is a danger not only to her research, but also to her life. Likewise for Olivia Hasting Brown, an astronomer in 2009 Princeton, N.J., the prospect of a new life threatens her notion of who she is and how much she's able to accomplish.
The maternal challenges to milie and Olivia constitute one of the myriad intersecting concepts in Zacaras's epoch-traveling comedy, which is receiving its world premiere at Arena Stage in Crystal City. Like Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" -- coincidentally in revival at Folger Theatre -- "Legacy of Light" boils up the troubles of historical figures and modern-day fictional types in a bubbly stew seasoned with philosophy and physics.
It's not necessarily in a dramatist's best interest to invite comparisons to the dauntingly gifted Stoppard. And it is true that the work sometimes comes across as "Arcadia Lite": Zacaras draws some of her characters too broadly, in service of the obvious laugh. And her more transparent devices for having them explain themselves indicate that she's not always adept at finding the subtlest ways to move her story forward.
Yet the play, directed with a divertingly light touch by Molly Smith, offers a surprisingly effervescent and often amusing perspective on the warring impulses that women have grappled with throughout time. The warming contributions of the cast, especially Lise Bruneau, portraying powerfully willed milie, and Carla Harting, as the profoundly conflicted Olivia, help to envelop the evening in an appealingly sentimental glow.
"Legacy of Light" tries very hard to identify parallels between the life of the mind of milie -- a physicist who hypothesized about the properties of light -- and of Olivia, who has discovered a new heavenly body. But matters of the heart are more satisfyingly examined here than those of the telescope. The play is at its sharpest when it is exploring its more down-to-earth concerns, such as the wrenching choices that a working mother makes. That leads to a tantalizing question: Does the birth of a child ultimately mean as much to the world as the birth of an idea?
The earthy milie -- based on an actual scientist of that name and period -- lives an amorously adventurous existence that involves a callow courtier (David Covington) and the maverick writer-philosopher Voltaire (Stephen Schnetzer). Olivia's far tamer routine revolves around her investigations for the Isaac Newton Institute, and her good guy of a husband, endearingly played by Michael Russotto.
The complications in both eras lead to some moments that remind you of French farce, and other moments of "Murphy Brown."
In alternating fashion, the stories unfold concerning their divergent feelings about and dealings with childbirth: 42-year-old milie finds herself pregnant by a lover, in a time when that comparatively advanced age would have been an extremely precarious one to bear a child. Meanwhile, Olivia, who is nearly 40 and unable to conceive, recruits an idealistic younger woman (Lindsey Kyler) to be her surrogate.
As it turns out, neither baby is completely wanted -- nor unwanted -- and the mechanics of "Legacy of Light" allow us to watch as each woman comes to a deeper level of understanding about the role she serves in the cosmos. In a similar way, the orbits of their stories, which develop separately, begin to collide -- as if time, like space, were a dimension with properties to be manipulated by science. This leads to, among other scenes, a funny sequence in which a beautifully coiffed ghost from the 1700s exhibits an impressive mastery of modern first aid.
The airy, suggestively furnished set by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg defty negotiates the ethereal channel between eras, and the lavish outfits for the French characters, designed by Linda Cho, radiate the requisite panache.
The glamour of Bruneau's milie is played off effectively here against Harting's dowdier Olivia; although Zacaras does not hit us over the head with the observation, "Legacy of Light" clearly reiterates the notion that in milie's time, a woman's femininity was far more highly prized than her intelligence. There is a poignancy, too, in enlightened milie's decision to effectively smother the ambition of her 15-year-old daughter, Pauline (the zesty Kyler, again), by marrying her off to a Parisian nobleman.
The pragmatism of that choice echoes in the present, not only in Olivia and Peter's opting to engage a surrogate, but also in the motivations of the young woman who agrees to bear their child. The play continually shows us how far, and not so far, the world has evolved.
It also wants us to like these characters an awful lot, and as a result, it sometimes becomes a mite pushy, as in the case of its Cyrano-like Voltaire. Schnetzer, a standout a few years back in Arena's production of Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?," is called upon to project vanity and utter sexually punning lines like, "You doubt the thrust of my sword?" This actor does all in his power to curtail the cartoonishness.
And yet, on the whole, this is a work with its heart in the right place, one in which the comic machinations emanate from a source of bona fide light.
Legacy of Light, by Karen Zacaras. Directed by Molly Smith. Lighting, Michael Gilliam; original music and sound, Andr J. Pluess; hair design, Chuck LaPointe. About 2 hours 10 minutes.