Encore Michigan

Brilliance and good character seldom connect in ‘Relativity’ at Theatre NOVA

Review June 04, 2022 Encore Staff

ANN ARBOR, MI–What do really know about Albert Einstein? One of the greatest minds of the Twentieth Century. We know about E=Mc2. but what else do most of us know?

In Mark St. Germain’s play, Relativity, it is imagined that Einstein (Phil Powers) in 1949 is at his post in Princeton where he is a well-paid celebrity faculty member, living with a companion/housekeeper, Helen (Ellen Finch) who looks after him in his dotage. A reporter from a Jewish media outlet, Margaret Harding (Anne Damman), worms her way to his office saying she is on her first assignment, and it is to interview him for a profile.

When Harding asks a lot of uncomfortable questions about Einstein’s two marriages and his strained relationship with his two sons, the scientist begins to get guarded and awkward. When she asks about Einstein’s daughter, thought to have died as a toddler from Scarlet Fever, at the turn of the century, Einstein really gets uptight and ends the interview.

But things don’t stop there. Harding has penetrated the easy, charming, witty Einstein’s public facade, and he calls out to her as she shuts the door, “Lieserl?!” St. Germain has taken factual bits of Einstein’s personal life and history, and the fact that scholars did not discover the existence of a daughter until they found letters between Einstein and Mileva in 1986, and has weaved a story, believed by some, that the two gave her up for adoption. Why? Because Einstein was consumed with his early work while working in Switzerland and did not want to be distracted by a wife and baby, while Mileva did not want the shame of being an unwed Mother. It is Harding who seems to know the truth.

Harding has a reason and an agenda to meet and connect with Einstein that has nothing to do with his fame and celebrity. It’s personal.

Powers does terrific work inhabiting Einstein–a complex combination of wit, aging humility and a drive to keep his status in tact even though by this time Quantum Physics has begun to throw shade on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. When he is pressed about what he was thinking when he turned his back on his daughter, he remorselessly defends his decision by placing scientific work–his specifically–above the mundane lives of Mileva and his daughter who was raised by two very nice people who were far more family focused than Einstein would ever be. For all his work and accomplishments, Einstein is missing something human.

St. Germain poses some interesting questions that are relevant today with regard to cancel culture. Does the fact that Charles Dickens left his wife and children for a younger woman cancel the brilliance of his writing? Does the fact that Henry Ford was a ferocious anti-Semite negate his place in history as the man who democratized car travel?

Damman’s Harding is sharp and penetrating. Finch manages to straddle the line between common-law wife, housekeeper, protector, secretary with great believability hits just the right balance. Directed by Carla Milarch, the three actors inhabit the intimate Theatre Nova performance space with excellent dynamic tension for the 90-minute one-act work.

Nobody is perfect. But where is the line drawn between accomplishment and character? Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder and begat children with Sally Hemmings, while fighting to end slavery at the time of writing the Declaration of Independence. Today, and not in the play, does playwright David Mamet’s right-wing politics negate his work?

Relativity is set in post-war Princeton. But as with any good play worth doing, the theme and the energy of the story is as relevant today as it was then.

Week of 7/4/2022

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