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A CurtainUp Review
A CurtainUp Review
The Half-Life of Marie Curie
Science is always there for us, grand and calm. A refuge against all evils. — Hertha Ayrton
Francesca Faridany as Marie Curie - Photo: Joan Marcus
Lauren Gunderson's The Half-Life of Marie Curie is the latest Audible production to settle in at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch it is a snapshot of the brilliant woman who not only discovered radium and polonium but became the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences.

Set mostly during the summer of 1912, it introdces Marie Curie (Francesca Faridany) when the news of her secret affair just broke and the brouhaha surrounding it threatened to overshadow her receiving her second Nobel Prize. Shaken by the public's reaction, Marie leaves France with her daughters and joins her friend and radical engineer Hertha Ayrton (Kate Mulgrew) at her rented mill house on the British seaside. Indeed, it becomes a sanctuary, in which the two women fortify each other's spirit and resolve not to let the public dissuade them from advancing with their careers.

The play is divided into 13 vignettes that begin with two fiery monologues by Marie and Hertha, respectively. In the first, entitled"Marie's Ode to the Radium in her Pocket," Marie is holding a vial of radium and investigating the substance with a sublime passion. She intensely observes the paradoxical properties of radium that both burns and is constant, and wistfully remarks: It's "like the love of your life . . . This is why I keep it with me. It reminds me of Pierre. Husband."

Marie's affection for her late-husband (Pierre was awarded part of the 1903 Nobel Prize, sharing it with his wife and fellow scientist Henri Becquerel) is genuine. Still, you can detect her strong streak of independence when she proudly recalls: ‘Radioactive" is my word. I coined it. That was me."

Marie's monologue is followed by "Hertha's Ode to the Electric Arc." Like Marie, Hertha now is a widow who must make her own way in a male-dominated world. And it's evident as her speech unfolds that things haven't been easy for her as a British engineer and inventor. To wit: Hertha recounts that she fixed the electric arc of the lightbulb that then made loud hissing sounds by silencing its irritating noise. Later on, you learn that she gained fame with her notable study of tidal ripples in sand and was a fierce suffragist and feminist to boot.

Playwright Gunderson manages to make potentially dry and complex material about physics accessible to an audience. The word"half-life" in the title, in fact, refers to radiation itself, which Marie explains early on as the process by which an element transforms itself so fully that it is more other than self. Or as Marie simply puts it: "Half . . .life."

The warm and cozy staging, with Rachel Hauck's period set and Amith Chandrashaker's lighting, bolsters this two-hander. To make these womme to life, the production is blessed with Obie Award winner Kate Mulgrew (Orange is the New Black, Star Trek: Voyager) and Francesca Faridany (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) as Marie Curie. Together these high-voltage actors generate plenty of electricity and you can visualize their characters through the finely-crafted web of Gunderson's language and Sarah Laux's handsomely-styled costumes.

One of the prickliest scenes in the play comes at midpoint, dealing with Marie and Hertha's memory of their first meeting at a scientific gathering. Marie, in fact, temporarily"loses it" and lashes out at Hertha that she felt that Hertha ran to her that night to gain recognition and prestige:"I'm the only other woman in the place, trying to demand respect and you run to me, calling my name, like we're sisters. We're not."

Unsurprisingly, it steps on a raw nerve for Hertha, who well-knows the dangers of professional jealousy and unexpectedly finds herself dealing with it at close range, in her own house, and with her dear friend.

The 85-minute performance takes many twists and turns before its denouement. The issues linked to puritanical attitudes toward sex, the gender wars ads up to a compelling real-life story . Like Audible plays this will be released globally on December 5th. But for now you have an opportunity to see it live.


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Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Cast: Kate Mulgrew (Hertha Ayrton), Francesca Faridany (Marie Curie).
Set: Rachel Hauck
Costumes: Sarah Laux
Lighting: Amith Chaudrashaker
> Sound: Darron L West
Stage Manager: Michelle Bosch
At the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane. Tickets: starting at $43. Phone 1-800-282-2787 or online at
From 11/12/19; opening 11/19/19; closing 12/22/19.
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 11/15/19

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