In the midst of our current disastrous COVID-19 pandemic comes a compelling world premiere play centered on Dr. Nathan Wolfe, the renowned virologist who has been warning for over a decade about deadly viral diseases that could upend the world as we know it. A world we now know, full of death and untold economic devastation.
The play is The Catastrophist, a deeply personal one-actor story written by America’s most-produced playwright, Lauren Gunderson, and developed as a streaming video presentation co-produced by Round House Theater and Marin Theatre Company.
It so happens that Gunderson is married to Wolfe. One suspects that their real-life relationship permits Gunderson to get deeper inside her subject—to write a play about not just a way-cool scientific mind and world traveler but also a human being with a tortured soul and a desire to save the world if he can. A soul with a Jewish upbringing trying to fulfill the concept of tikkun olam (repair the world), a Hebrew phrase that repeats in Wolfe’s monologues.
Gunderson has penned The Catastrophist as no mere love letter to her husband. Persuasively directed by Marin Theatre Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, the play is an 80-minute back-and-forth in time through two dozen or so scenes of heartfelt dramatic tension. Far from an emotionlessly stand-and-deliver affair, the production opens itself not just to scientific inquiry but to Wolfe’s ingrained value systems and his need to do good for others.
William DeMerritt (Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole World, HBO’s The Normal Heart) portrays the Wolfe character not as one of those oh-so-smooth, just-so-perfect TED Talk presenters. (The real-life Dr. Wolfe has done his share of TED Talks, which are easily found on line.)
DeMerritt presents the Wolfe character as a brilliant, sometimes arrogant scientist who has all the answers to the questions he thinks worth asking—“I am the only one in the world who knows this” is one response he gives to himself. Yet DeMerritt’s Wolfe is relentlessly seeking scientific truth.
DeMerritt gently teaches the viewer that “all new pandemics come from animals. Zoonotic infections, or infections from diseases jumping from an animal into a human, this happens all the time.” Looking directly to viewers, he says, “Good science is a definitive result that answers an important question.” He waits a beat then corrects himself, changing the critical word definitive to convincing. And he does so not sounding like a know-it-all.
Even more, DeMerritt speaks tenderly of his personal traumas and his dad’s long influences on him—or how critical his unseen yet heard spouse is to his life (“You can ask my wife,” she has him say).
Overall, DeMirritt seems effortless in his sincere, inquisitive nature. And this is in a solo performance in a production that involves a great dealing of standing on a bare stage (filmed straight ahead, from the left, or from the right).
Yet I came to sense there are parts of Dr. Wolfe’s life that are hidden from view. Parts that Playwright Gunderson or Dr. Wolfe may have decided were too intimate and painful to fully expose.
There is a short scene about an unheeded idea of Wolfe’s—that there’s no pandemic insurance and there should be. The scene was less than revealing. It did not explore the apparent failure of the concept of insuring against a pandemic. Why didn’t businesses and governments listen to him when he sounded his alarm? Was the world caught up in other matters, other health issues, or war, or profits? In another scene, a media attack on his team’s work in Africa had more than a whiff of defensiveness.
There is one specific line in The Catastrophist that had me stop and rewind the streaming video. It connects a pandemic’s possible death toll to what viewers may have memorized from their own lives. It left me stunned.
The Catastrophist was filmed on stage in Marin Theatre Company’s Boyer Theatre. The fine digital production’s creative team includes a casual costume for the character Wolfe designed by Sarah Smith. Wining, dark-palette lighting by Wen-Ling Liao underpinned the dialogue. Original piano and guitar music was composed by Chris Houston, who was also responsible for the crisply heard sound design full of heartbeats and other aspects of aural landscape. Director of Photography Peter Ruocco provided an elegantly edited film.
Gunderson’s The Catastrophist is a deeply insightful work of art, a digital production well worth your attention. For all of us, it might also open our thinking to all that is expected of our nation’s medical and scientific leadership as they work to protect us from unseen and unforeseen health risks.
What Playwright Gunderson, Director Minadakis, and Actor DeMerritt accomplish is to provide a viewer a theatrical look inside the mind of a scientist who from an early age was asked and wondered, “What will you do with your skills to save others?” For the character and real Dr. Wolfe, it was to study viruses and then with what he learned try to scream an alarm to the world—as in that well-remembered line from the noirish movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, “Look, you fools. You’re in danger. Can’t you see?”
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.