There are numerous ways men and women differ from each other, and one of the biggies is how women have to balance their intellectual and occupational aspirations with the powerful biological and emotional pull towards having children. Obviously, men often have virtually no conflict in this situation, while women frequently need to make wrenching and agonizing decisions.
The females in the century-spanning Legacy of Light by Karen Zacarias, now at the Cleveland Play House, are grappling with issues both universal and personal, and the result is a funny, intriguing and ultimately uplifting experience.
Thanks to a talented cast and splendid staging, this final full production at the Cleveland Play House — before their summer move to the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square — is an untrammeled delight.
Leveraging some real historical characters, Emilie du Châtelet is a wise, witty, and sometimes horny mathematician in 18th-century France.Married to an older man, she also shares her bed with the studly Jean-Francois Saint-Lambert and the philosopher Voltaire. But at age 42, she realizes she's with child and, given the sketchy mortality rate for late-in-life pregnancies in that era, Emilie knows her clock may be running out.
Meanwhile, some 250 years hence, Olivia is also a scientist, an astrophysicist who recently discovered a new bouncing baby planet in the solar system. However, she has a bad case of "baby fever" and, as a middle-aged survivor of ovarian cancer, hires surrogate mother Millie so she and her husband Peter can have a child.
The action swings back and forth in time and then converges, showing how the challenges facing both Emilie and Olivia are shared over generations or, indeed, eons.
Although the play's time-traveling structure echoes other scripts, such as Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, what stands out in this work is the light, deft touch Zacarias brings to both worlds.
She starts out with some heavy-handed double entendres, when Emilie and Jean-Francois are surprised in bed by Voltaire ("Tending another man's garden, I see"). But soon, the language focuses on Emilie's mathematical journey: translating Newton's geometry into calculus, discovering flaws in his assumptions, and setting the stage for Einstein's Theory of Relativity.
If this sounds like heavy slogging, it isn't, thanks to the author's ability to relate the important aspects of science to the personal, without getting tangled in the details. At one point, she marvels that light has no mass and then adds, "otherwise, how would our souls survive the pelting."
As Emilie, Cerris Morgan-Moyer is both sensual and intellectually driven, racing against time as she tries to establish her legacy. She is nicely complemented by Lenny Von Dohlen, a wry Voltaire who ultimately interacts with Olivia as well as Emilie.
The other actors in the cast play double roles, and do so in fine style. Michelle Duffy is entirely appealing and relatable as Olivia, channeling an off-handed Janeane Garofalo vibe as she tries to sort out her passion for her profession with her more basic mothering instincts.
Clancy O'Connor makes the most startling transition, starting out as the randy Jean-Francois and then becoming Lewis, the nerdy brother of surrogate mom Millie. Paul Michael Valley provides a calm, centered rationality as Olivia's husband Peter, an average guy with an extraordinary wife, while also playing Emilie's cuckolded husband.
Director Bart DeLorenzo moves his actors in and out of scenes as smoothly as scenic designer Takeshi Kata maneuvers sliding wall sections and a turntable to span centuries within seconds.
This seamless staging enables the audience to become fully involved with some of the weightier thoughts being expressed.
For instance, at the beginning of the second act, Olivia delivers a dazzling scientific presentation on such matters as dark matter and the mysteries of gravity: "The thing we know the least about is holding us together the most."
Woven through the whole piece are repeating thoughts, such as "Everything changes, but nothing is lost." This idea particularly applies toward the conclusion, as Emilie and Voltaire show up in Olivia's world, finding connections they never could have known existed.
And that makes for a beautifully resonant ending to a play that entertains and informs while raising compelling questions about women and the nature of our world.