Some 60 years after Marie Curie died (in 1934) from a rare blood disorder caused by her work with radium and polonium, the French government had planned to move her body as well as that of her husband Pierre to the Panthéon. However, the team responsible for exhuming their coffins had to be extraordinarily cautious about the levels of radiation they might encounter. When they uncovered Marie’s coffin, they realized that it had been lined with lead so contamination was not a concern.
But, after more than 90 years, all of her belongings remain dangerously radioactive. They are stored in lead-lined boxes in the Paris national library. For any visitors doing research, they must sign a waiver of liability and are required to wear protective gear to guard against exposure to radium-226.
In the Pygmalion Theatre Company production of Lauren Gunderson’s The Half-Life of Marie Curie, which continues through Nov. 18, the audience regularly hears the familiar clicks of the Geiger counter. This sound cue alone accents the reality of this specific isotope – with a half-life of 1,600 years – that will always remind us of the harmful risks and sacrifices the great French scientist undertook in her Nobel Prize winning research.
Gunderson’s two-hander is an engrossing integration of art into an important chapter of science history. It also incorporates the real-life account of a humiliatingly trumped-up scandal in Curie’s private life and how her friendship with the British physicist Hertha Ayrton, a pioneer in her own right as a scientist demanding to be deemed as equal to her male counterparts, helped save her from the brink of losing it all to despair. Directed by Fran Pruyn, this magnificent chamber theater production shines with dazzling performances by April Fossen as Ayrton and Stephanie Howell as Curie.
Howell’s portrayal of Madame Curie is astounding in its accuracy. Curie appeared consistently frail, as she and her husband (who died in 1906, three years after they shared the Nobel Prize in Physics) had always labored in ramshackle conditions and they always had financial difficulties. The couple refused to obtain a patent for their work, on the grounds that they saw it as unethical for scientists to capitalize commercially and therefore compromise their research integrity. Howell skillfully embodies the holistic historical portrait of her character, just as she did with Juanita Brooks, the Mormon historian, in Debora Threedy’s Mountain Meadows, which the Pygmalion Theatre Company premiered earlier this year.
Completing the perfect chemistry bond on stage is Fossen’s rendering of Ayrton, a robust professional and emotional paragon of sisterhood. Ayrton remains the only woman in the history of England’s The Royal Society to be awarded its highest honor, the Hughes Medal, which she received for her research on the electric arc and on sand ripples.
The emotional core of Gunderson’s play revolves around another historical event: the circumstances of Curie, a widow, and an affair with a colleague Paul Langevin (who was having marital difficulties). The brouhaha over their relationship caused her the greatest tribulations. Indeed, it is this event where the bond of sisterhood portrayed in the play is strongest. In actuality, Ayrton was not only sympathetic but empathetic to the emotional distress that Curie endured.
Both were immigrants in their respective adopted lands. Ayrton’s parents escaped the pogroms targeting Jewish families in Poland. Her father had died when she was seven years old and the family, which included eight children, was destitute. Ayrton would eventually live with her aunt in London, who ran a school and inspired Ayrton to take up the sciences.
Curie also was an immigrant from Poland and that fact drove some of the most vicious attacks on her character when French newspapers vilified her as the reason for causing Langevin to engage in an extramarital affair. Curie stood up in her own defense and, in fact, forced an apology from one newspaper, on the same day in 1911 when she received word of her second Nobel Prize.
But, the attacks were relentless, as crowds gathered outside of her home, shouting for her to leave France and go back to Poland. After accepting the Nobel Prize, Curie was so distressed that she was hospitalized and eventually traveled to Ayrton’s home to recuperate. It would be another year before Curie could return safely to her work. Gunderson takes some creative liberties with the actual timeline but the gist of the circumstances are still there. The extent of Curie’s relationship with Langevin has never been established but Langevin’s son mentioned in the biography he wrote about his father that a relationship might have been a natural development for both scientists, given that they had known each other personally and professionally years before, as Langevin also was friends with Pierre Curie. One ironic trivia bit: Langevin’s grandson married Curie’s granddaughter Hélène Langevin-Joliot (now 96), who worked as a nuclear physicist.
Howell and Fossen excel in conveying the credibility of these events through Gunderson’s well-documented stage writing. One of the finest scenes involves a prop that also is based in historical accuracy.
In actuality, Curie had successfully defended her doctoral thesis and she and her husband had invited several friends (including Langevin) to celebrate. For a gift, Pierre Curie presented his wife a little tube, partly coated with zinc sulfide, which contained a quantity of radium salt in solution. The tube became illuminated and everyone fixed their eyes on the display. In the play, the friendship between Ayrton and Curie teeters on the edge of collapsing, when Ayrton is shocked that her friend pulls the tube from her luggage. Ayrton insists that Curie return it to the little lead-lined box she has for it. Ayrton goes on for several minutes about the extreme risks Curie has taken without considering its potentially fatal ramifications.
This scene is not just played for its dramatic impact on stage. In recalling the actual events of that evening when Pierre presented the tube to Marie, Canadian scientist Ernest Rutherford recalled that her husband had a difficult time holding the tube, as he noticed how Pierre’s fingers had become horribly scarred and inflamed. In the play Ayrton was alarmed for her friend’s health — a scene that both actors play for the production’s greatest emotional punch.
This Pygmalion production of The Half-Life of Marie Curie is highly recommended for its outstanding performances and its keen appreciation of the underlying history. This demonstrates that stories about pioneering women scientists can provide wonderful material for the stage.
This is the second Gunderson play in recent years that Pygmalion has staged. In 2017, the company presented Silent Sky, which was based on the groundbreaking research in astronomy being carried out by Henrietta Leavitt and her colleagues in the Harvard College Observatory, starting in the 1890s.
The current production runs through Nov. 18 in the Black Box Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. Performances will be Thursdays, and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For more information, see this website.