Nature, nurture and ‘Relativity’ drive a new play about Einstein

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Mike Nussbaum stars as Albert Einstein in “Relativity,” a new play by Mark St. Germain at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

“Relativity,” Mark St. Germain’s new play about a largely opaque chapter in the life of the thought-altering physicist Albert Einstein, is an exercise in dramatic speculation. And before going any further two things must be noted.

First, the principal reason to see this Northlight Theatre production is to watch Mike Nussbaum, the 93-year-old actor who might easily be dubbed the eighth wonder of the modern world, work his magic as the complicated, ornery, sardonic and all too human genius whose celebrity surely became something of a curse in his later years. Second, this review must come with an immedate spoiler alert, for to explain the premise behind St. Germain’s play is to reveal the secret that is its animating force. So read on if you wish, or simply take this as an inducement to catch a remarkable actor (of any age) working at the height of his powers.

‘RELATIVITY’ Highly recommended When: Through June 25 Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie Tickets: $30 – $81 Info: (847) 673-6300; www.northlight.org Run time: 80 minutes with no intermission

Ann Whitney plays Helen Dukas, housekeeper and secretary to Albert Einstein (played by Mike Nussbaum), in Mark St. Germain’s play “Relativity,” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Ann Whitney plays Helen Dukas, housekeeper and secretary to Albert Einstein (played by Mike Nussbaum), in Mark St. Germain’s play “Relativity,” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

“Relativity” begins, fittingly enough, at a train station, for as those with even the most elementary familiarity with Einstein’s special theory of relativity will tell you, the example used to illustrate it is this: “If one observer is midway inside the car of a speeding train, and another observer is standing on a platform as the train moves past, it is impossible to say in an absolute sense that two distinct events occur at the same time if those events are separated in space.” There will be other brief illustrations of this and other theories offered during the play (they involve cups and saucers), but there is no need to pull out your tattered physics textbook, for this is a play about even more mysterious phenomena: the demands of the human ego and the workings of the human heart.

Arriving on a train to interview Einstein at his home in Princeton, N.J. (he worked at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study from 1933 until his death, in 1955, at the age of 76), is Margaret Harding (Katherine Keberlein). An attractive woman in her mid-40s, she claims to be a reporter for a Jewish publication, and her determination to interview the celebrated scientist defies even the efforts of Helen Dukas (Ann Whitney), his housekeeper secretary, and perhaps former lover, and a woman who easily could teach the Secret Service a thing or two.

Einstein is dismissive of Margaret’s entirely predictable initial questions, including those about his first wife, Mileva Marić, a student of mathematics and physics he met at the Zurich Polytechnic, would marry in 1903, and with whom would have two sons, born in 1904 and 1910. But he is not at all prepared for the question she eventually asks: What about the daughter, Lieserl, born out of wedlock in 1902 — the child who contracted scarlet fever and was never mentioned beyond 1904? Did she die? Was she institutionalized (before antibiotics, scarlet fever often resulted in serious complications)? Was some sort of adoption arranged?

As it happens, it was not until 1987 that an early correspondence between Einstein and Marić was discovered and revealed the birth of that daughter in Novi Sad (Serbia), where Marić was staying with her parents until she returned to Switzerland without the child. It also is crucial to mention that Einstein, still in his early 20s, did his foundational work during the same period, publishing four groundbreaking papers in 1905 — including those on special relativity and the equivalence of mass and energy.

In “Relativity,” St. Germain takes a giant imaginative leap and gives us the adult Lieserl, who not only survived but has a 16-year-old son who demonstrates signs of genius and has been offered a scholarship to Princeton. She has come for a reckoning with the father she never knew, and to find out how a man so celebrated for his interest in “mankind” could have been so detached from his own child. She will be told in no uncertain terms that Einstein saw the purpose of his life as solving the mysteries of the universe, rather than engaging in the ordinary responsibilities of domestic life. (Of course there are plenty of parents lacking the slightest hint of genius who also abandon their children, just as there are many brilliant people who happen to be great parents. But Einstein was not alone in his betrayal. Long after he was famous, playwright Arthur Miller and his third wife had a son with Down syndrome, who was institutionalized and excluded from the Millers’ personal life at his insistence.)

“Relativity” is a tightly structured, information-packed 80 minutes, full of all the essential arguments, and while it feels more than a little artificially constructed, the actors, under the airtight direction of Northlight artistic director BJ Jones, bring total commitment to their portrayals. With his uncanny resemblance to Einstein — from the shock of thick white hair, baggy pants and sweater, and spot-on accent, to the engaging quizzical grin, the air of impatience and pride, and the hint of inner sadness — Nussbaum captures both the braininess and volatility of the man. Whitney, in a terrifically droll turn, is a model of loyalty, tough love and paranoia. And Keberlein is relentless as the aggrieved daughter in search of the love of a father who was in love with ideas.

Mike Nussbaum plays Albert Einstein and Katherine Keberlein plays Margaret Harding in Mark St. Germain’s play “Relativity,” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Mike Nussbaum plays Albert Einstein and Katherine Keberlein plays Margaret Harding in Mark St. Germain’s play “Relativity,” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

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