Science plays like this one by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood often hinge on the idea that the most staggeringly powerful technology in the history of the world—life-giving, life-cheapening, life-threatening—maybe shouldn’t be overseen by people incapable of understanding morality or human emotions.
This line of thought leads to the kind of paradoxical conceit that underlies all theater worth its salt, namely that science is too important a factor in our lives to be left up to mere scientists.
There is more to know about the world than can be learned inside a large hadron collider, even if that knowledge is lost on high-powered physicist Alice (Cindy Marker) and her peers at CERN Labs in Geneva, where she’s been working for 11 years. Alice’s sister Jenny (Julia Siple) is in town and in crisis, having made tabloid and mumsnet.com headlines back in London after exposure to conspiracies made her an anti-vaxxer and led to the loss of her only daughter.
Whatever Jenny’s massive shortcomings, whatever idiotic mistakes she may have made—she’s “completely devoted to being stupid,” in Alice’s cold-blooded estimation—harsh living has made this feisty and foul-mouthed sister, duty-free bottle of Du Bouchett menthol liqueur and all, the streetwise conscience of the family, a corollary to Alice’s scientism. Planted squarely in the middle is doddering mother Karen (Meg Thalken), herself a onetime scientist and now a full-time scold, who lives with Jenny and makes the trek to Geneva alongside her.
The action of the play is essentially these three individuals contending with their mutual inability to understand one another’s pain. Alice’s son Luke (Alexander Stuart) comes out as collateral damage. Everyone has their way with him until, finally, enough is enough. He scores a kind of victory by running away from home, throwing Alice’s life into an all-consuming “chaos” that her binary cause-and-effect rationality is incapable of untangling.
At two hours and 45 minutes, this show, directed by Jaclynn Jutting, has a lot of arc to get through on its way to a brilliant second half and final anticlimax. A lot of it is chat, which isn’t a bad thing, but chat, especially British chat, can’t be delivered as though every sentence were the most important thing the character has ever said. The wonderful Thalken seems to understand this the best out of the cast; her throwaway insults carry a sting the more harsh the less full-throatedly she speaks them. Julia Siple may simply be too much of a powerhouse for that kind of delicacy. Her performance contains some of the rawest intensity of any acting I’ve seen, either at this very special theater, now beginning its first season as an Equity company, or anywhere. v