Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson, produced by Bill Hurlbut and directed by Erin Bone Steele is presented at Silver Spring Stage. The company has recently performed another of Gunderson’s plays, Silent Sky. Gunderson’s plays are noted for uncovering unsung women in history, notably in mathematics and science.
This production champions the early 18th-century French noblewoman, Emilie du Châtelet (Karen V. Lawrence). At this time before the French Revolution, it was extremely unusual for women to be allowed to study mathematics, the sciences, and philosophy, but Emilie studied not just as a child but throughout her adult life.
Her works on Newton, Locke, the Bible, and independent scientific studies, in addition to some philosophical musings, would have been regarded in the same light at her lover, Voltaire (Kevin Dykstra), if she were not a woman. She challenged Newton’s theories on fire and developed formulas for kinetic energy that were the basis of further work. She translated and wrote a commentary on Newton’s Principia, which contributed to the scientific revolution in France and the rest of the European continent.
Sadly, it is often her long romance with Voltaire for which she is remembered. The drama here centers on her relationship with Voltaire and her need to find out the meaning of the scientific works of her time as well as the meaning of life itself. The story starts at her death and looks back on her life from the time of her marriage to the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastlellet-Lomont (Peter Orvetti) to her final days.
Lawrence as Emilie carries the play seamlessly, slipping from self-narration to becoming part of the action. She does this believably while allowing the audience to understand the charm, wit, and intelligence of this woman.
Dykstra captures Voltaire’s pomposity and infatuation. It is a bright and smart performance. Dykstra’s scenes with Lawrence are the essence of the production, and they both reproduce that magnetism of the two characters. They are both at the top of their performances when the lovers deal with a major rift in their relationship in Act II.
Sienna Goering plays Ingenue Emilie. The two actresses wear almost identical costumes, so the relationship is clear to the audience. The two often act in unison when they are onstage together. Goering is also charming and witty as the younger version of the heroine. Kristyn Lue is Soubrette, Emilie’s now grown-up daughter. She shines in the scene before her wedding where she confronts her mother with feelings of paternal neglect.
Orvetti does well as the beleaguered but understanding husband. Nicolas Temple has several roles including Emilie’s final romantic interest, poet, Jean Francois de Saint-Lambert and Sir Isaac Newton. He also gives an outstanding performance. Renate Wallenberg is Madam (among other roles), Emilie’s mother, who never accepts her daughter’s choices. Wallenberg is humorous and provides some appreciated comic relief at some of the more stressful moments.
Steele’s direction is interesting visually, and she allows her actors to develop interesting characters. Her concept of Emilie is clearly defined early in the drama. Steele combines the technical elements effectively.
The set by Jeff Asjes is clean-lined and decorated in the style of a French chalet of that era. The costumes by Jennifer Georgia are also in period, and I really appreciated how she costumed both Emilies in similar but clearly different costumes by changing the fabric. The lighting by Don Slater is superior to most community theater productions. The actors are always clearly lit, and he creates a great deal of mood throughout the drama.
The background music that ran almost continually throughout the show did not add anything for me and often interfered with the dialogue. Act I is rich in historical facts and humor and sets up the conflicts in Act II, but may be too expository for some. I did appreciate how the characters introduced the scenes by giving them amusing names. It is a clever inspiration.
With the recent surge in dramas about remarkable women, Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight stands tall. It is well worth seeing.
Running Time: One hour and 55 minutes, with one intermission.
Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight plays through November 18, 2018, at Silver Spring Stage –10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.