The Remarkable Marie Curie Saluted in Alan Alda’s Drama of Science, Love and Feminist Politics

Ewa Maria Wojcik Vibrant in Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie

Swiftly Tilting Project Proves Intimate Joria Space Compresses Explosively

Triple Theme of Rescuing Human Potential Still Shockingly Relevant

Marie Curie extends the olive branch to the frustrated wife of her working colleague without realizing that she will betray the friendship in the end

Vast themes of human triumph and tragedy in scientific progress, love and loyalty in domestic entanglements, and the still tragically wasted potential of the female half of the human race are all built into a new play about a famous scientist that a local New York acting group managed to squeeze into the smallest possible stage on the West Side this weekend.

The Joria Productions Mainstage Theater at 410 W. 47th St has room for a stage and seats hardly greater than the average New Yorker’s apartment living room, but the momentous creation that Alan Alda has come up with in his script about the Polish scientist Marie Curie expands it in the imagination to a full size Broadway stage, with all seats almost part of the action.

The astonishing Marie

Alda has realized what many others have overlooked, for some reason possibly to do with one of his themes, the neglect of women’s talents, that the life of this famous Polish scientist embodies an extraordinary combination of social and emotional issues of the first importance in history, difficulties which still torment people in societies throughout the world.

Marie Curie is of course the very famous Polish born (1867, Nov 7, Warsaw) woman of science who sought to clarify the number of elements that make up the material of existence and succeeded in discovering two which were radioactive, winning her two separate Nobel prizes (still a unique achievement) despite huge resistance at that time to taking women seriously in science, a prejudice which continues in the 21st Century.

A woman of passion: Marie Curie doing her thing – finding new and dangerous elements, falling in love and bringing up children from whom separation during the day was made inevitable by her pioneering work

Fleeing Poland in search of fulfillment withheld from women in her native country, partly because it was occupied in partition at the time, or similar, Marie Curie at the age of 27 arrived in Paris and managed to pursue her studies in science far enough to win an unprecedented Ph.D.- the same year she won the Nobel. She planned to return to Poland but met Pierre Curie, a Frenchman who married her and became her admiring colleague in pursuing her scientific curiosity, who eventually shared the Nobel prize with her.

Played with vibrant energy and conviction by a young actress whose very name reveals that she is of Polish origin also, Ewa Maria Wojcik, this is the heroine whose triumphs and travails are the grist of Alda’s unusual script, one of the first contemporary efforts to dramatize the potentially vast consequences of keeping half the human race barefoot and pregnant when their numbers include women of ability and intellectual ambition in science and other demanding fields who can make life changing discoveries to transform society if they are released from male prejudice and repression.

Alda Hits Bullseye

Professional science buff and explainer Alda has done a science play which surely has broader appeal than anything done to date, because he has recognized that the story of Madame Curie has huge resonance in more than one aspect of modern life – not only the continuing surge in scientific progress an discovery, but also the still handicapped empowerment of women, and the eternal human struggle between love and family life and the demands and triumphs of important work, a struggle which handicaps any of us if we aim at great accomplishment in any sphere, but especially in intellectual work.

In all these ways the story of Curie is not only relevant but inspiring, not least because it is a saga of overcoming cultural resistance and prejudice against women taking on one of the greatest challenges of the outside world and beating men at what they consider their own game of scientific discovery worthy of a Nobel – two Nobels in Curie’s case, which is still a record.

That, and defeating the kind of social repression of women that had most of them suffering the torments of the damned when they were discovered in adultery or pregnant outside marriage. Curie’s affair with her friend and colleague nearly lost her the second Nobel prize she won for her work, so busy were the supposedly bedroom-wise French in condemning her adulterous affair, though it was after her own husband died, and with the husband of a jealous wife in a relationship that was already emotionally broken.

The story is so appealing to the pen of any playwright that it is something of a mystery why Alan Alda is apparently the first to see its golden literary nature. There have after all been quite a few biographies of Curie, and at least one film made by the British. But the recent success of one or two plays concerned with science and even mathematical discovery have shown the way with their fair success in attracting audiences.

This juicy drama incorporates all the emotion of the social and sexual politics which swirled around this Polish-born heroine, however, whose very presence in Paris reflected her determination to leave behind the provincial disrespect of women in her native city.

There is so much lively conflict of ideas and personalities in this script that not surprisingly it easily surmounted the handicap of its excessively modest stage, which was hardly more than a large room in a tenement brownstone on 47th Street just off Ninth Avenue, which is busy with traffic on weekends in its numerous restaurants with tables or open walls onto the street.

Small theater, big impact

So how does this story play on the stage? Previous tries in Los Angeles and London have met with quibbles and lacklustre appreciation, but it seems pretty clear that much depends on the director.

On the Saturday night we just attended about sixty chairs were filled around a patch of floor on the second level of the house at the back, and actors were only a few feet from those of us in the first of three rows. Moreover, it was a hot night and as the lively stage manager explained to us the air conditioning could be switched on only after the heating was inactive or somesuch, so hand fans of every kind were essential throughout.

But the sound system worked and the hand of the director was deft in arranging the actors on stage so that the limitations of scale vanished, and the unfolding of the tale was as effective as it might be on any larger platform, which it might well deserve.

If anything the vocalization was a bit more strenuous than needed in the beginning but as the play moved along all settled into their roles until by the second half with no diminution in drama all were convincingly present as figures from the past reliving on stage the events of another time as if today.

Some will object that the process of discovery is oversimplified, perhaps childishly so, by Alda’s script, which as staged either breathlessly anticipates the triumph of proving out Curie’s theory that tiny levels of radioactivity in polonium or radium would emerge from her suggested process or celebrates her success with hugs and cries of joy – “You did it! You must be thrilled! This is fantastic!”. One gathered that Marie had been inspired by watching the slag being separated from the molten metal in some factory, and asked that the pitchblend be dumped in the back garden without warning husband Pierre of just how many truckloads would be involved. “That is the first truckload. There are twenty more!”

But no matter – the grubby details of science are hardly the topic for any playwright anyway. What grips our attention very soon is the fact that all her work was initially credited to her husband by the Nobel Committee, and he had to insist that she be included in the award – and even then she was not allowed on stage to share in the limelight of the acceptance.

“I don’t understand. Does being a woman demand invisibility” Marie asks, but without succeeding in changing the ruling. How hard did her husband fight for her? Alda does not make this clear, since he moves from one episode to the next very rapidly.

He does make clear however that her hugely supportive husband’s tragic death in the street in the rain under a 30 foot wagon was due to the poisonous radioactivity of the polonium and later radium they worked with. Pierre Curie’s legs were just too weakened to jump out of the way of a heavy horsedrawn cart whose back wheels ran over him after the horses knocked him down.

The adulterous affair she eventually is blessed with to comfort her after Pierre’s death provides the cliffhanger of the second part of the play, since it brings down on her the wrath of the mob and demands from the Nobel Committee that she deny it publicly before they can hand her her unprecedented second prize.

There is enough here to support a TV drama of several segments, and we understand that there is another movie currently in the works. One thing is certain: this production deserves a much longer run than a weekend on a bigger stage in New York, and with luck will get it.

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