Review: “The Radiant” (Genesis Theatrical Productions)

Debbie Ruzicka and James McGuire/Photo: Ron Goldman.

Show: “The Radiant”

Company: Genesis Theatrical Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre (2936 N Southport Ave)

Die Roll: 13

Scientific discovery should provide a wealth of material for theatrical exploration. Nothing is more engaging than human curiosity and effort. However, STEM-based plays often fall into traps of plot contrivance or confusing jargon, for fear of misleading or boring the audience. Such is the case with the Chicago premiere of “The Radiant,” an exploration of Marie Curie that is less interested in her achievements, and more invested in how romance sets her on a path to melodrama and potential ruin.

Marie Curie was a total boss, known for the discovery of polonium and radium, as well as her pioneering research on radioactivity. She was also the first woman to win two Nobel Prizes. As portrayed by Debbie Ruzicka in Genesis Theatrical’s production, she is shy and overwhelmed after her husband Pierre’s death. She does not fight for his teaching position at the University of Paris, and only weakly steps into his lectureship after receiving encouragement from his former assistant, Paul Langevin (James McGuire). She fears entering Pierre’s lab due to the memories it will dredge up. And once she develops romantic feelings for Paul, any dramatic focus on her research goes out the window, even as she fights (mostly) offstage to isolate radium and defend her work as a chemist. Her niece Katarina (Chloe Dzielak) acts as her confidant and caretaker to the Curie children, while Michael Lomenick takes on the roles of every man who tries to undermine Curie’s work.

Michael Lomenick/Photo: Ron Goldman.

Playwright Shirley Lauro clearly understands the gender double standard that Curie experienced in academia; her secret relationship with Langevin caused a scandal that threatened her second Nobel Prize. But the author is unwilling to push Curie into high-stakes decisions. Her affair randomly begins at her husband’s graveside, only moments after she laments how much she misses him. Her scientific work is referenced often, but the isolation of radium is never given context. There is little to root for in this biographical piece, when the audience is whisked from scene to scene and year to year with little information given about what Marie outside, outside of time with her boyfriend. Ultimately, the science feels lost, Curie’s goal is unknown, and the relationship at the center of the play ends by giving gratitude and power to Paul. I doubt that was Lauro’s intention, but the affair storyline carries little weight, while the effect of an affair on a prominent woman’s work could have unleashed a longer, more nuanced dramatic exploration.

Ruzicka is dutiful to the script, emphasizing Curie’s insecurity about her appearance, as well as her melancholy. It doesn’t make the scientist easy to root for, but she is recognizably human amid time jumps and announcements regarding her affair. McGuire is less able to flesh out Paul, whose inner life is left mostly a blank; why he loves Marie remains a mystery by play’s end. Dzielak starts the play using broad humor, which is jarring, but settles in to a more subtle, serious vein by her final scene. Director Kaitlin Taylor tries to pull the threads of romance and science together, but she has the actors speak at such a slow pace, it’s hard to find momentum or conflict in their love and work.

I am not sure why set designer Harrison Ornelas chose to use movable pillars as a marker for different spaces in a black box theatre. Eric J. Vigo’s lights could have delineated offices and living rooms from the outdoors well enough. Continual movement of the pillars added time that the play did not need, and actually hemmed the actors in, creating a couple of unnecessary blind spots from where I was sitting.

Across her career, Marie Curie dealt with xenophobia, gender discrimination, and loss. “The Radiant” skims across these issues, and minimizes her work onstage. A better portrait would develop her steely resolve, and display how she chose to move past these obstacles into exciting new discoveries.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Marie Curie was a badass; she deserves a stronger play.

DIE RATING: d4 – “Not Worth the Time”