“I don’t even want to admit which one of her plays that is,” he says. Gunderson, America’s most produced living playwright, is quick to retort: “This is literally referenced in [‘The Catastrophist’]. Nathan thinks there was this play about him,” she says, before turning to address her husband. “But it’s not about you.”
Wolfe defends himself, with a chuckle: “I said it was a ‘parody,’ loosely based on me.”
Wherever the truth lies, the 50-year-old virus hunter is right: By re-litigating this long-standing dispute in “The Catastrophist,” a work that can be restaged in perpetuity, Gunderson again gets the last word. It’s an astute observation from a researcher long celebrated for his tracking of such viral outbreaks as Ebola and swine flu, which in 2011 landed him on Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
The prolific Gunderson, meanwhile, has turned her fascination with scientific minds into myriad plays, including “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” and “Silent Sky,” the true story of 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. A decade ago, during the early days of her relationship with Wolfe, she remembers thinking it was inevitable that she would turn her creative eye to her partner.
“Would it be a movie? Would it be a play?” Gunderson says she wondered. “Of course, we fell in love, got married and had two kids, and no play or movie was written. So this has been a long time coming.”
“Lauren claims that I had a veto,” Wolfe adds, “but I don’t remember getting a veto on this one.”
As the founder of Global Viral, a nonprofit that studies and communicates the risks of epidemics, Wolfe has long been intrigued by microbial life. (“If you’re really interested in what life is and how we fit into it — well, it would be sort of foolish not to understand the most numerous, most diverse forms of life on our planet, which are viruses,” he says.)
Yet the idea of Gunderson putting Wolfe’s work under the microscope wasn’t broached until the onset of the current pandemic, when Jasson Minadakis, artistic director of the Marin Theatre, approached the playwright about adapting her husband’s 2011 book, “The Viral Storm.” After some hesitation, Gunderson countered with her own concept: a memory play, which would be less of an exploration of Wolfe’s work and more of an emotionally rooted character study. With Minadakis directing and William DeMeritt playing Wolfe, “The Catastrophist” was filmed last month on the Marin Theatre stage under coronavirus safety protocols.
“It becomes a piece where you’re learning about viruses, and you’re learning about pandemics, but more importantly, through all of that, you’re seeing what drives the people who are truly saving our lives today,” says Ryan Rilette, Round House’s artistic director. “That’s what I love about it.”
Set in 2016, “The Catastrophist” opens with Wolfe trapped in an ethereal realm. As the character becomes unmoored from temporal reality, revisiting moments of personal and professional significance, he engages in meta-theatrical dialogue with an unseen playwright.
Although the implicit threat of covid-19 looms over the play, Gunderson is less interested in directly addressing the current moment than she is in channeling the universality of her husband’s life experience, including the birth of their children, the loss of family members and the steadfast pursuit of one’s passions.
“My job as a dramatist is to get to the hardest, most sensitive and scary and painful parts of a character’s journey,” Gunderson says. “So — wow — am I strong enough and capable enough to take this man that I love and put the character of him into these dark corners and hard, tough memories? But I knew that, on the other side, is this life that we live, and we’re together and we’re okay.”
Capturing Wolfe’s dry sense of humor and suffer-no-fools personality proved easy enough for Gunderson. But she also interviewed her husband and his mother to further shape his character in the play. After not seeing any drafts of the script, Wolfe experienced “The Catastrophist” for the first time when DeMeritt performed a live reading last year.
As Wolfe recalls, it was a “singular, memorable moment.” He promptly contributed some notes, to fine-tune the play’s science, which Gunderson happily incorporated.
“The feeling was one of bookending a part of my life and, in some ways, emphasizing the next step of my life, which will be different,” Wolfe says. “I didn’t start off as a scientist focused on pandemics. I was working with wild ape populations, and fascinated by evolutionary theory. And I won’t end my career as a scientist working on pandemics. So it’s kind of cool.”
Down the road, when their 4- and 6-year-old sons are old enough, Gunderson and Wolfe plan to show them “The Catastrophist” as a way to further connect with their parents. In that sense, the play functions as both a work of undeniable immediacy and, at least in the Gunderson-Wolfe household, something of a time capsule.
“Finding this idea that felt urgent and exciting, and pushed me as an artist, was a real gift, just separate from the fact that it helped me understand and explore my partner of 10 years,” Gunderson says. “It also felt like a gift to Nathan. That wasn’t the reason to do it, but it certainly turned into something, and that felt good.”
Does the subject of “The Catastrophist” have anything to add?
Wolfe allows a knowing smile. “I’m going to give the playwright the last word.”
Round House Theatre. roundhousetheatre.org.
Dates: Available to stream starting Jan, 26.