Georgia O’Keefe declared, “To create one’s own world takes courage.” And for women of exceptional intellect, the path is particularly fraught with misogynist obstacles. In Switchyard Theatre Company’s production of Lauren Genderson’s The Half-Life of Marie Curie, O’Keefe’s words could serve as the subtitle to the story.
Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes, one in Chemistry and the other in Physics. Yet when the scandal broke that the widowed scientist was having an affair with a married man, another physicist, she was vilified by the press. Her friend, the British engineer and suffragist, Hertha Ayrton (winner of the Hughes medal and famous for her work on electric arcs) whisks her away to her coastal house to recuperate and regroup. There, the two women share their passion for science and ponder their lives as women scientists, wives, and mothers in the early twentieth century.
Samantha Corey effectively conveys Curie’s mental and physical distress. Wearing a vial of radium on a gold chain around her neck like a talisman, she bemoans the state of her career while also pining for both her dead husband and lost lover. She struggles with the need to pursue her scientific interests with her very human desires in a world, her friend laments, that allows “no space for women to be people.”
Mary Rowland delivers an outstanding performance as the brilliant physicist and mathematician Hertha Ayrton. Optimistic, outspoken, and brazenly profane, Rowland’s Ayrton consumes the stage and grounds the friendship of these two women. She is also the source of many of the best comic moments of the play.
Laura J. Parker’s creative costuming vividly highlights the differences in the personalities of the two scientists. Curie, draped in black, mourns her losses and despairs about her future. Ayrton, sporting a luscious cream skirt and blouse, accented by a thin tie and gold belt, reflects both her positive and non-conformist attitude.
Director Noelle Azarelo made some interesting choices with this North Carolina premiere of the 2019 Off-Broadway play. While set pieces were kept to a minimum, stage hands would unnecessarily move furniture and props for scene changes, or even hand items to the actors, which often proved to be very distracting. And the addition of the short video felt a bit like an anachronism amidst talk of the first World War.
Yet Gunderson’s 90-minute drama of the imagined intimate conversations between Curie and Ayrton over the course of thirty years felt particularly timely as many women find the choices for how they want to live their lives narrowing. Both women had to fight for recognition as scientists, and Ayrton fought for women’s right to vote. Both sought a better world for themselves and their daughters. They remind us that we must keep fighting as well.
For more information about Switchyard Theatre Company, visit https://switchyardtheatrecompany.org/.