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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Relativity
Northlight Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule


Mike Nussbaum
Photo by Michael Brosilow
Albert Einstein may have solved many of the universe's mysteries, but he left one behind. He and his first wife Mileva had a baby daughter in 1902, but she vanished from all public records and known private documentation after 1904. Efforts to find out what actually happened to the baby have fallen short. Some of theories that have been investigated include the baby having been adopted, or entered a convent, or having died of scarlet fever. None have ever been substantiated. Playwright Mark St. Germain has taken a stab of his own, freely imagining a meeting between Einstein and the daughter at age 47, in 1949. And why not imagine such a meeting when no facts are known? As the author's notes point out, Einstein himself said "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world and all there will ever be to know and understand."

Apart from offering that sentiment—the best possible endorsement one might ever find for the importance of the arts—Relativity asks a larger question. Are "great" people—those with great accomplishments that benefit mankind—necessarily great people in the way they treat others? Was Einstein a great human being as well as a great scientist? Why in the world would a man abandon his daughter?

In Relativity, now in a rolling world premiere at Northlight (the third of four world premiere productions), the playwright proposes that the daughter, born Lieserl Einstein, was adopted by foster parents and grew up in the U.S., where she is now known as Margaret Harding. Pretending to be a journalist seeking an interview with Einstein at Princeton University in 1949, Margaret asks him about the daughter, and soon admits she herself is Einstein's "lost" little girl. Confronting the great physicist about his decision to abandon her in infancy, Einstein offers excuses, but ultimately falls back on a lament that the world expects too much of its "great" people.

Einstein is played by the venerable (too weak a word for him) Mike Nussbaum, who, though 94, reads perfectly as the scientist at age 70. Reviewers never fail to remark on his age—how could we not?—but the truth is his performance would be remarkable for a man of any age. His lively and nuanced characterization shows Einstein's wit, but also his impatience, shame and pain upon facing his daughter for the first time since her abandonment. It's a joy to watch him throughout this tight 80-minute one-act piece, and don't we have to love a guy who at 94 is cast in a role 24 years younger than his real age?

Nussbaum is ably supported by Katherine Keberlein as Margaret Harding. Her role is something of a straight-woman to set up Einstein's quips and give the great Nussbaum someone to react to, but she comes off as every bit the classy and educated woman one would expect of an Einstein progeny. St. Germain gives her perhaps the impossible task of posing as a reporter when first meeting Einstein in a way that would not arouse his suspicions (or the audiences). She warmly charms the old man into trusting. In hindsight, though, it seems we should have seen and remember some tension in her demeanor while in her ruse. A third character, Einstein's housekeeper Helen Dukas, is played mostly for laughs and delightfully so by the veteran Ann Whitney. Her Dukas has a stern Germanic demeanor that serves her suspicions that the household she shares with Einstein is being spied upon by sinister forces. As the script comes to suggest she's more to Einstein than just a housekeeper, Whitney moves into a more tender mode.

B.J. Jones's crisp direction is played on a detailed, realistic set by Jack Magaw and accompanied by a tasty original musical score by Andrew Hansen. It's a concise and entertaining piece that feels just right at its 80 minutes. The play was commissioned by Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota, where it was first performed with a different cast in June 2016. A production by the Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, Iowa, just ended in April and the fourth production of the piece will be this fall by Taproot Theatre Company in Seattle. All fine productions, I'm sure, but this one has the added bonus of Mike Nussbaum as Einstein.

Relativity will play Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, through June 25, 2017. For more information and for tickets, visit www.northlight.org or call 847-673-6300.


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