Playwright: Vern Thiessen. At: Genesis Theatrical Productions at The Athenaeum Theatre 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: at 773-935-6875 or Athenaeumtheatre.com; $30. Runs through: Aug. 28
Noted Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen crafted this accessible 2003 drama about two Nobel Prize-winning scientists as a memory play.
It's a story about two friends who, despite working in similar fields of science at the same time in history, never fully agreed about many things. The more familiar Einstein alternates between narrator and participant in this fictionalized history. Einstein and Fritz Haber were both celebrated and dedicated Jewish-born German scientists; however, they differed on several scientific and moral issues.
While Einstein wasn't particularly concerned with his national or cultural identity, Haber was a proud nationalist who renounced his religion in order to become accepted and advance his career. Their views about the nature of pure and applied science also differed. Einstein considered chemistry unimaginative, while Haber thought physics to be impractical. Haber also viewed war as an often unavoidable means to an end, while Einstein was a devout pacifist. Both men would be honored and remembered for their contributions to science, but that would ultimately backfire.
While Haber developed a fertilizer that ended hunger in Europe, his lethal chlorine gas that helped Germany create chemical warfare during WWI would eventually be used to execute his own people in the concentration camps. Of Einstein's many wonderful gifts to the world, they would eventually include a bomb so destructive as to be capable of destroying all of mankind.
In a play about balance, about one man's pride and all-consuming drive to achieve fame and success, director Elayne LaTraunik has staged this Chicago premiere with as much integrity and creativity as both the script and her venue allow. She's provided her own kind of balance in the way she's guided her cast to simply tell this story of two noteworthy scientists who were, despite being friends, never on the same page. While Harrison Ornelas' and Jeremy Hollis' set and lighting are both serviceable, as are Paula Kenar's period costumes, it's the cast that stands out in this production.
Guy F. Wicke is warm and charismatic as Einstein. Stepping in and out of the story, he eloquently details memories of a friend and colleague with poetic flair. Chris Saunders juggles the demands of Haber, a role that calls for arrogance, with a passion for science over society. Infatuated by discovery and his need for recognition, Saunders attacks a chalkboard with unbridled eagerness and ecstasy, demonstrating more ardor for his work than for his wives ( both nicely played by Vered Hankin, as Clara, and Becky Lang, as Lotta ). Nicholas Hodge's Otto journeys from dedicated assistant to ruthless member of the Third Reich, and James McGuire's stern, savage Nazi regime minister of education brings chills in a play that offers the audience its own gifts.