Theater Review: “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” — The Science of Friendship

By Bill Marx

A valentine card is touching because it is short and sweet. A valentine play — even at 90 minutes with no intermission — wears out its affectionate welcome.

The Half-Life of Marie Curie by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Bryn Boice. Produced by The Nora@Central Square Theater (A Catalyst Collaborative@MIT Production) at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through December 12.

Lee Mikeska Gardner & Debra Wise in The Half-Life of Marie Curie. Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s two-hander is a love letter to a pair of remarkable turn-0f-the-century women of science, the celebrated Marie Curie and the less well-known Hertha Ayrton. Curie won two Nobel Prizes over the course of her trailblazing career, discovering radium as well as helping to perfect the X-ray. Ayrton contributed significantly to the technology of the electric arc, removing its initial hiss, sputter, and hum. They were close friends: Ayrton (a determined suffragette) was the more ebullient of the two and buoyed the spirits of the depressive Curie. The Half-Life of Marie Curie is a playfully ironic title: both of these lives, even though they ended too soon (Curie at 66, Ayrton at 69 ), were very full. But just about everything else in this valentine to their brilliance, rebelliousness, and comraderie is earnest and, in terms of drama, that is a problem. A valentine card is touching because it is short and sweet. A valentine play — even at 90 minutes with no intermission — wears out its affectionate welcome.

The chunk of the evening is set around 1912. Curie’s beloved husband and workmate Pierre died six years before and she has taken a younger lover. The affair has been exposed by the man’s wife, and the French establishment, indulging in moralistic fury, has branded Curie a home-wrecking harlot. She is being viciously denounced in the press and her two children are being harassed. Funding her experiments has become a problem while false rumors are being floated that she is Jewish (the Dreyfus affair had only been wrapped up in 1906). Ayrton arrives and energetically bucks up the distraught woman, reminding Curie of her amazing accomplishments and the stupidity of the male order of things. She encourages her to go to the Nobel ceremony despite being discouraged by the Swedish prigs in charge. Some feminists will note that a lot of the talk revolves around the men in the women’s lives — Pierre, Curie’s lover, Albert Einstein, and Aryton’s saintly husband. (Both were fortunate to find supportive hubbies.) Still, there is plenty of scuttlebutt about the women’s accomplishments, their children, and huzzahs to the healing powers of nature at Aryton’s home in Highcliffe, England, where Curie goes to regain her peace of mind.

Much impressive information is provided and emotional temperatures taken without much development in the way of character, plot, or theme. It quickly becomes obvious that, once the furor blows over, Curie will be back, more inventive than ever. (There’s not much depth to the scientist’s despair.) You become sympathetic with Aryton’s repeated hankering to hear some juicy details about Curie’s sex life. (Alas, she’s not forthcoming.) A moment of drummed-up conflict arrives: Curie wears a small glowing vial of radium around her neck and Ayrton is worried about how it may be affecting the health of her and those around her, particularly given how often the woman complains about pains. But this is a short hiatus in the women’s exchanges of (well-deserved) mutual admiration. And that means there is plenty of monotony in an evening that is worshipful rather than exploratory. Characterizing the allure of science in 1933, Curie said that “If I see anything vital around me, it is this very spirit of adventure, which seems ineradicable and is very closely related to curiosity.” There’s nothing theatrically adventurous in Gunderson’s vision of an empowering odd couple, though there are flickers that we are seeing two sides of a single female psyche — an introverted yin and a fearlessly engaged yang.

The two performers, Lee Mikeska Gardner as a morose Curie and Debra Wise as an up-and-at-’em Aryton, are a pleasure to watch, even when they are made to sound like walking/talking encyclopedia entries. Director Bryn Boice leans hard into Gunderson’s stark contrasts: Wise is all vim and vigor and unfazed gusto — she gives us an “unsinkable” Hertha Ayrton. Gardner effectively conveys a more complicated Marie Curie: a downcast dreamer who’s dependent on the confidence supplied by others. 

And now for the glowing elephant in the room. Albert Einstein acknowledged that without Curie’s discovery of radium there would have been no atomic bomb. Does anyone doubt that she would have been horrified by Hiroshima and Nagasaki? You can’t blame Curie for being insufficiently prescient about our destructive capabilities, though World War I’s mass slaughter — assisted by chemistry’s development of poison gas — should have offered a strong hint about the homicidal world to come.

At this point, though, ignorance doesn’t excuse a dramatist’s indifference, even if the goal is to supply placid entertainment. In The Half-Life of Marie Curie Gunderson ignores an inconveniently ironic truth: Curie proudly handed radium over to the very patriarchal, anti-Semitic powers-that-be who were pitilessly persecuting her and her loved ones. What could go wrong? Should this innocence be left unchallenged for the sake of projecting the purity of our quest for knowledge? I don’t believe so. As I write, profit-hungry billionaires, mega-banks, fossil fuel companies, and governments (authoritarian and otherwise) are funding teams of scientists and think tanks to come up with “solutions” — involving bioengineering and geoengineering — to the climate crisis, answers whose unpredictable outcomes on our earth and humanity are truly frightening to contemplate. (Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent volume Under a White Sky ferrets out some of the alarming fantasies that are being dreamed up by members of the industrial-politico-military-scientific complex.) That theater companies are blind to the potential for high drama, tragic and otherwise, generated by current efforts to intervene in (or “redesign”) the degraded environment — as we attempt to save ourselves (and consumerism) and whatever remains of nature — is an ongoing disgrace.

In a nutshell, Gunderson fails to take on the issue of responsibility, as playwright Bertolt Brecht does in 1943’s Galileo, his portrait of a seminal scientist who, when he is threatened by torture and worse by the Inquisition, finds subterfuge to be the only way to survive powers hostile to the truth. (Note to A Catalyst Collaborative@MIT Production personnel: perhaps time for a climate crisis savvy adaptation of this play? To my knowledge, Galileo has never been produced professionally in Boston. [See comments section below]) I am not demanding — with the pandemic still raging and social media spewing fog banks of disinformation — for shows to undercut the value of science. Science’s quest for the truth? By all means. Wonder in the face of existence? Knock yourself out. Curiosity about how the universe began and how it is put together? Bravo! But our theater artists can no longer naively accept the birth of a miraculous scientific discovery as a good in itself — without looking skeptically at the hands rocking the cradle.

Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. David Fichter on November 19, 2021 at 8:34 pm

    Hello Bill
    I wanted to respond to your statement that Brecht’s Galileo had not been produced in the Boston area . In fact the very theater you are reviewing produced Galileo in 2009 directed by David Wheeler. I’m sorry you missed it because I think it was a great production and it was one of the Catalyst @MIT early choices. I was the designer (sets and puppets) for the show.
    David Fichter

    • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on November 19, 2021 at 9:52 pm

      Hi David:

      To my sorrow I missed it. And it makes sense that Brecht’s script would have been one of Catalyst@MIT’s early choices. I should have done more research. But it has been over a decade, and I will stand by my wish in the review that it is time for a version informed by the climate crisis. Frankly, any script that looks carefully at the intersection of science, climate change, and power would be welcome.

      • David Fichter on November 21, 2021 at 2:53 pm

        Hello Bill
        In 2014 URT produced Sila written by Chantel Bilodeau a Canadian playwright which took on the effects of climate change particularly on the Native Peoples of Northern Canada. I’m assuming you missed that particular production. Chantel is a leading playwright on the impacts of climate change and continues to write plays based on that theme. The 2014 production was a Catalyst @ MIT production. I hope you will check out their next production called Young Nerds Of Color which is based on interviews by hundreds of scientists of color and is written by Melinda Lopez.

        • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on November 21, 2021 at 5:28 pm

          Hi David:

          Sila I saw and reviewed for The Arts Fuse. I admired that the script took on the subject of climate change but found that it was overcrowded with concerns and plot lines.

          The play’s psychological and environmental dilemmas, complete with apocalyptic undercurrents, call for a Shakespearean breath and complexity. But even under the sensitive direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian, Sila (the Inuit word for breath) marches through its numerous civic/cosmic melodramas at a pace that leaves you a bit breathless, and feeling emotionally bullied to boot.

          I also put one of my favorite James Baldwin quotes about theater in the piece:

          Only by a more truthful examination of what is really happening here can we realize the true aims of theater, which are to instruct through terror and pity and delight and love. The only thing we can do now for the “tired businessman” is to scare the living daylights out of him.

          Not much terror and pity in the Gunderson bio-drama (some lite touches of delight and love). I look forward to seeing Lopez’s script. From what I have read and heard, some scientists of color and otherwise around the world are having psychological breakdowns, lapsing into depression and worse, because of what we are doing to nature. It is hard to watch parts of it die. That manifestation of “terror and pity” has not been registered in the (scant, I would argue) public discussion of the climate crisis. Let’s see if a theater has the courage to scare tired businessmen and -women rather than assuage them.



  2. David Fichter on November 22, 2021 at 10:10 pm

    “Terror and pity”? I have been told that during one of the performances of Sila at the moment a shadow puppet version of the baby polar bear drowns because of the melting ice flow, a woman in the audience lept up and ran screaming from the theater yelling “You can’t kill the baby polar bear. You have to warn people.” Staff members tried to calm her but she was weeping inconsolably and upset because she hadn’t been forewarned . For her it was complete terror. For others the death of a small cardboard shadow puppet might seem sentimental . The question for me is who is the audience that we are trying to strike terror and pity in. If it is the businessman making money off fossil fuels then the terror and pity will more likely come from the fact that the new mayor of Boston is pulling all investments from the fossil fuel industry. Hopefully that act will cause them to cry inconsolably as their profits are drowning like the baby polar bear.
    David Fichter

    • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on November 22, 2021 at 10:34 pm

      Hi David:

      The call for “terror and pity” was aimed at The Half-Life of Marie Curie production. It is terrific that the new mayor of Boston is pulling all investments from the fossil fuel industry. As for Catalyst @ MIT productions, I suggest they need to send considerably more terror and pity down the spines of the higher ups at MIT, if they come to the shows. The university has yet to divest from fossil fuels.

      From a February, 2020 opinion piece in The Tech: “MIT, unfortunately, is not delivering on its promises to promote large scale political action on climate change. MIT has not divested its $17 billion endowment from its fossil fuel holdings, which MIT Divest is fighting for.”


  3. David Fichter on November 22, 2021 at 11:53 pm

    Well now we have something we can agree on. MIT does need to divest. Harvard has taken that step finally after much pressure from students and alumni. Their terror came when alumni started electing climate activists to the board of overseers.

    My general point remains that Underground Railway Theater has been producing politically engaged theater about many of the themes you rightfully bring up. And they have been doing it for over 40 years. I think you should positively recognize that, regardless of whether a particular production meets your desired approach, and not just complain that Boston area theaters are failing to take on the responsibility to tell these stories. URT has a long track record of creating productions that engage audiences in the themes you and we hold dear.
    David Fichter

    • Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on November 23, 2021 at 9:41 am

      Hi David:

      We agree on far more than you think. The piece was not an attack Underground Railway Theater, which I have written on and admired for decades. I am an on-the-record supporter and believe that URT has told important stories. Frankly, the piece was more of an attack on Gunderson, and the assumption of too many American dramatists that they can write about history with a sort of blithe innocence. Celebrate Marie Curie by all means. But in this day and age to leave out where her discovery of radium led? You don’t have to agree, but I felt that the omission should be pointed out.

      As for our theaters failing to deal with the climate crisis, I will not back down and will continue to sound the alarm, as I have via several commentaries. Over the past decade or so we have seen increasing interest in the visual arts, documentaries, fiction, and dance on this major issue, a matter of global survival. There is even a school of criticism, ecocriticism — one of whose tenets is the study of “attention, the predisposition to widen, exteriorize, expand, deepen, and embed our apperception of the environmental realities.” Our major theaters, with an exception or two, have not dramatized “environmental realities” — we are lagging well behind what is going in the other arts I mentioned.

      Why does it matter that theater pay attention to the struggle to preserve nature? We need an imagination of the future that goes beyond the extremes of utopia and dystopia — one that rejects infinite growth and the unalloyed joys of progress and embraces the power of restraint. Theater can be part of that essential change of consciousness. But it needs to pay attention. I will continue to demand that it does because criticism’s traditional role has been to challenge as well as judge.

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