Playwright: Shirley Lauro. At: Genesis Theatrical Productions at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: $32. Runs through: June 11
In recent years, plays about working women have evolved from waitresses, hairdressers and secretaries obsessed with personal family issues to female CEOs, senators and nuclear physicists obsessed with personal family issues. Traditional gender assumptions die hard,you see, making even women of proven historical accomplishment vulnerable to reduction of their social role to domestic spheres. It may have once been asserted that Madame Curie did not say, "I think I've discovered radium; I'd better ask a man," but this doesn't stop Shirley Lauro from depicting the founder of radiology as a quasi-Collette romantic whose security lay in a male embrace.
Our play begins with Marie Salomea Sklowdowska Curie mourning the sudden death of Pierre Curie, her beloved husband and fellow physicist. She refuses the widow's pension offered by the University of Paris, nevertheless, instead proposing to continue in his place. While visiting his grave one day, she encounters Paul Langevin, a former student bearing flowers and sympathy. Despite this devoutly Catholic admirer being irrevocably married, they embark on a clandestine love affair. When the liaison is exposed, the resulting scandal almost derails the Swedish Academy of Sciences awarding Mme. Curie her second Nobel Prize.
You heard that right: her second Nobel Prizeone among dozens of international honors recognizing her breakthrough discoveries, many still important today, but whom we see toiling in her laboratory only twice in Lauro's text ( which compresses nearly a decade into a brief 90 minutes ), its author seeming more preoccupied with her heroine defying adversarial colleagues/xenophobic bureaucrats/sexist tabloids, swapping sweet nothings with her paramour and consigning her children to the care of her giddy young niece. Further clouding the narrative is the script's teleplay structureshort scenes, small playing areas and multiple locales, making for frequent live-performance scene changes rendered only marginally less cumbersome by designer Harrison Ornelas' furniture on wheels.
The Genesis Theatricals ensemble, under the guidance of director Kaitlin Taylor for this Chicago premiere, features a praiseworthy portrayal of its iconic subject by Debbie Ruzicka ( whose real-life science savvy lends credibility to her discussions of the experiments that would eventually destroy their adventurous perpetrator ) and game efforts by a trio of supporting players who struggle with nebulous dialects and dialogue sprinkled with ham-handed manifestos. Marie Curie certainly deserves the accolade of her own biodrama, but she also deserves a better one than this.