By Kim Jackson
Sonorous Road Repertory Company invites us to the salon of Emilie du Chȃlet in mid-18th century Paris where physics equations decorate the blackboards and even a rug. Some random act of the cosmos has resurrected this woman who explains to the audience, “I died without answers.” And for a scientist and mathematician, that is probably the worst fate. But for the audience, it is a lively, imaginative introduction to this brilliant historical figure.
Lauren Gunderson’s Emilie: La Marquise du Chȃlet Defends Her Life Tonight, is inspired by a real person, a woman, ahead of her time, who dared to challenge Isaac Newton, published her work in physics, and contributed to our modern understanding of energy. And she accomplished this at a time when women were excluded from a formal scientific education because of their gender. Most of her early learning was either self-taught or came from discussions with renowned scientists and mathematicians who were guests of her father, a court official under Louis XIV. An arranged marriage at 18 to Marquis Florent-Claude du Châtelet, an army officer, provided her with wealth and stability. After the birth of three children, she resumed her studies and experiments in physics, as well as indulged more sensual pursuits, most notably, an affair with the most famous writer and philosopher of the time, Voltaire.
This Emilie, portrayed with a quivering vibrancy by Michelle Murray Wells, seizes the renewed opportunity to define herself on her terms with entertaining intellectual sass. She quickly grasps the rules for her present reincarnated state, while also leaning into the narrative of her life. She believes she can reconcile her passions for love and philosophy (the term encompassed science at that time) by keeping score as she introduces significant life events. She is tracking the data to reach a conclusion that eluded her the first time around.
And just as Emilie captivates us with her bold intellect and wry sense of humor, she attracts the charmingly witty and arrogant philosopher Voltaire. Sterling Hurst’s Voltaire has a Gene Wilder sexiness with a hint of danger. His tantalizing conversations equally invigorate mind and body. Voltaire and Emilie’s mutual attraction is both physical and intellectual; Wells and Hurst embody the twin passions of these characters that fueled their life-long relationship. When the pair begin to drift apart as lovers, it is because she begins to eclipse him intellectually and he becomes jealous, rejecting her body, but unable to resist her mind. Their scenes together are some of the most entertaining and mesmerizing moments of the production.
Yet the theatrical conceit here is that Emilie is both the narrator and a participant in her life’s saga, sometimes watching another actor (a very coquettish Samantha A. Matthews) take over the role of Emilie in various scenes. This dual perspective highlights Emilie’s quest for answers as she re-examines her interactions with others before her untimely death in childbirth at the age of 42.
The other prominent people in Emilie’s life besides Voltaire are all capably executed by just three actors. Along with playing Emilie’s Soubrette or stand-in, Matthews also assumes the role of a servant, a gossipy society woman, as well as Emilie’s daughter. The confrontation between mother and daughter is probably her best moment in the show.
Justin Johnson effortlessly transitions from role to role, playing various characters from Emilie’s boorish husband to servant to her final lover. Fluidly he delivers each role with distinct changes in voice, mannerisms, and body language. His versatile range is delightful to watch.
But perhaps the most engaging of the trio is A.C. Donohue who has great comedic and precise timing resulting in the show’s biggest laughs. She also delivers a more tense dramatic moment as Emilie’s mother, reprimanding her daughter for rejecting traditional gender roles and “rules.” This scene underscores just how unconventional Emilie was for her time, and ironically, probably for any time.
Director Egla Birmingham Hassan gives a full rendering to Emilie’s life, elaborately choreographing the scenes and characters in a way that feels natural and fluid, mirroring Emilie’s own journey across her memories. Scenic Designer Nicholas Lease opts for a minimalist set with just a few period pieces, a desk, a chair, a settee, blackboards bearing formulas, and an elaborate frame on the back wall, which opens the stage for movement.
Lighting by Alyssa Petrone beautifully frames moments, but was sometimes unnecessarily dim. Sound Designer Shelly Snapp provides some Baroque-style twists to current music to set a courtly tone as well as executed precise timing of other sounds that add interest and focus to scenes.
Special note goes to the costuming by Rachel McKay. Emilie’s period dress of bright gold and vibrant blue, a Rococo-inspiration of silk and bows, resembles the gown worn in a prominent painting of the scientist. More importantly, the front of the dress was cut open to reveal the hoops, as if to suggest the openness with which Emilie approached life. She is colorful while the rest of the cast wears period-style costumes done in ghostly white, a not so subtle nod to her ongoing quest towards becoming a “force
While this production may feel a bit like a historical reenactment, and we are presented with most of the details of Emilie’s remarkable life, Gunderson’s creative presentation pushes us to a fuller realization of this woman. Emilie embraces her narrative and the forces in her life; no apologies or justification. She just wants to be recognized for her scientific contributions, as well as respected for her personal decisions. Her passions add up on both sides of the equation.
Emilie: La Marquise du Chȃlet Defends Her Life Tonight runs through April 14th at Sonorous Road Repertory Company. For more information visit:
Click here to read Lauren Van Hemert’s interview with Playwright Lauren Gunderson.
Listen to the RDU on Stage podcast episode featuring Playwright Lauren Gunderson and Egla Hassan, director of the Sonorous Road production of Emilie.