"Relativity" Review - Northlight Theatre Production Poses Moral Conundrums

Northlight Theatre is continuing its 2016-2017 season with the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Mark St. Germain’s “Relativity”, directed by BJ Jones, now extended through June 25th at The North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Starring the venerable nonagenarian Mike Nussbaum as Albert Einstein and featuring Katherine Keberlein as Lieserl Einstein, aka Margaret Harding with the delightful Ann Whitney as Einstein’s housekeeper Helen Dukas, this is a 90-minute fictitious confrontation in the guise of a moral exploration.

Mike Nussbaum as Albert Einstein

Whitney is super as the crotchety and loving protector and Nussbaum shines as the congenial genius, whom he clearly resembles and whose German/Swiss accent he catches perfectly. Alas, however, Keberlein’s character is shrill from start to finish, possibly because the diatribe upon which she is focused is so narrowly centered. The issue, we are told, is whether a great man must needs first be a good man. However, the sole accusatory arguing point is one that upon inspection fails. Specifically, the allegedly forgotten daughter (she actually died of scarlet fever at 2) whom Einstein and his later wife, Mileva Misec jointly gave up when they became pregnant out of wedlock, appears at Princeton in the guise of a journalist. Her impertinent questions about his personal life coupled with her highly self-invested emotionality unmasks her as Lieserl, grown up, widowed, and with a genius son who’s been admitted on a grand scholarship to- where else?-Princeton.

Lieserl/Harding lambasts Einstein for an hour and a half about "his" long-ago decision to abandon her, bringing forth “proof” that the genius humanitarian was a bad husband and monstrous father. Among the “telling” points she adduces are the accusation that Einstein’s son Hans Albert  (a prominent and prize-winning life-long professor of Hydraulic Engineering at UC Berkeley) denies his parentage. How could he do so with that name!?  No such charges are laid at the feet of the long-dead Misec- didn’t she have a responsibility to the children as well?

Mike Nussbaum waxing eloquent as Albert Einstein in "Relativity"

Despite the harangue of the female lead, the dialogue, especially that given to Einstein, as well as the repartee between Einstein and Lukas, is incisive, intelligent and droll. The talking points are taken from research, if unsubstantiated. The music/ sounds are natural and clever, particularly that of Einstein’s parrot. Similarly, the set is well-done and believable, the costumes era-specific and believable. Kudos to Jack Magaw for scenic design, Rachel Laritz for costume design and Andrew Hansen for original music and sound design.

Director BJ Jones did a nice job of bringing out the various personalities and keeping the impossible interpersonal conflict centered on a series of really engaging moral issues, brought forth by the disclosures Lieserl/Harding makes about her adoptive family. The premise here is that this “good’ husband and father (unlike Einstein) gave up a lifetime’s artistic opportunity to nurse a sick wife.

 

Ann Whitney and Mike Nussbaum in Northlight Theatre's "Relativity"

The issues fairly raised include:

-What price should ones work be allowed to exact upon ones family?

- What commitment of time and attention should a spouse and children be entitled to expect from a distracted absorbed genius?

-What price fame?

-Are we expecting too much from those we idealize?

-Is genius inheritable?

-Can anyone judge the sum total of another life?

Mike Nussbaum as Albert Einstein and Katherine Keberlein as Margaret Harding in "Relativity"

In the end, this play and the questions it raised absorbed this reviewer and guest for many hours both before and after the production. This is the mark of a fine piece of meritorious work, both in the writing and in it’s production. The play is recommended.

For tickets and information about "Relativity", go to the Northlight website

 

All photos by Michael Brosilow

 

 

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