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In ‘The Half-Life of Marie Curie,’ a study of female friendship and solidarity amid personal crisis

Lee Mikeska Gardner (foreground) and Debra Wise in "The Half-Life of Marie Curie" at Central Square Theater.
Lee Mikeska Gardner (foreground) and Debra Wise in "The Half-Life of Marie Curie" at Central Square Theater.Nile Scott Studios

CAMBRIDGE — Scientists help to explain the world, but they also have to live in the world.

And that’s no easier for them than it is for anybody else — even when you’re a genius and a giant like Marie Curie.

In Lauren Gunderson’s “The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” now at Central Square Theater under the direction of Bryn Boice, we find the Polish-born Curie (Lee Mikeska Gardner) engulfed in scandal after her affair with a married man becomes public.

Amid a torrent of vicious press coverage, the pioneering physicist has been asked by the Nobel Prize committee to not attend the ceremony at which she is to be awarded her second Nobel (this one for chemistry). What should be a moment of triumph is anything but. Curie seeks refuge with her close friend, the British engineer, physicist, mathematician, and suffragist Hertha Ayrton (Debra Wise).


It’s a lab experiment of sorts: What will happen to a friendship between two strong-minded, independent women when it’s subjected to extreme pressure?

As it explores that question and others, “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” leans decidedly toward the talky side. That’s probably inevitable for a two-hander originally commissioned by Audible, the audiobook service.

But the play grows more absorbing as its portraits of the two women deepen and its scope widens — and as their solidarity waxes, wanes, and waxes again.

Gunderson is a prolific dramatist, not yet 40, who has become a significant presence in American regional theater by marrying skill to mission. One of her specialties is pulling the stories of women pioneers out of the history books — or out of obscurity — and giving them agency and life on the stage, from a feminist perspective.

Boston-area theatergoers have seen that for themselves in dramas like “Silent Sky,” about early-20th-century Cambridge astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (presented by Flat Earth Theatre in 2017), and “Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight,” about an 18th-century French philosopher-mathematician (memorably portrayed by Gardner at Central Square Theater in 2014).


As with those plays, “Marie Curie” succumbs to a certain didacticism at times, but the vigor of Gunderson’s writing seldom slackens, and she hits the bull’s-eye more often than not, as when tackling the double standard applied to women scientists (or women, period). Hertha bitingly observes that men “simply love to knock an irreplaceable woman off her mark,” and notes: “There is no space for women to be people! That’s what we’re marching for. It’s not just the vote, it’s the freedom to be alive in this world without restriction.”

When we first see Marie, a widow with two daughters in 1911, she’s feeling far from free. She describes herself despairingly to Hertha as “a wife with no husband, a lover with no love, a scientist with no science . . . a woman with no country, no reputation, no future. . . . I don’t know what is left of me or for me.”

Hertha, also a widow, is a figure of staunch resolve — her picture should be in the dictionary next to the word “indomitable” — but her support for Marie, while fierce, is not unconditional.

Before the play is over, there are rocky moments and uncomfortable truth-telling about the choices Marie and Hertha have made (their reconciliation after an especially bitter argument is a bit facile). Hertha presses Marie on why her friend insists on taking a vial of radium with her everywhere she goes, even as Marie is clearly suffering physical consequences, and why, with radium being used in toothpaste (!) and soda (!), Marie isn’t raising her voice against it. (The issue of what responsibility scientists have for the uses to which their work is put will echo down the decades that follow.)


This particular production of “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” features a medium-is-the-message dimension. How often, after all, does it happen that a play’s stars double as the artistic directors of the resident theaters at the venue where they’re performing?

Gardner heads The Nora@Central Square Theater (formerly the Nora Theatre Company), which is presenting “Marie Curie,” while Wise is the leader of Underground Railway Theater. (She recently announced she’ll be stepping down at the end of this season from her post, which she has held since 1998 at the company she cofounded in 1978.)

As Hertha, Wise delivers a briskly commanding performance, marred only by the fact that her British accent does not hit the mark. As Marie, Gardner again demonstrates her gift for inhabiting not just a character’s behavior but even, seemingly, her very thought process.

Like all of us non-geniuses, Gardner’s Marie is trying to define for herself what constitutes a full life.


Play by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Bryn Boice. Presented by The Nora@Central Square Theater. A Catalyst Collaborative@MIT production. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge. Through Dec. 12. Also available on-demand from Nov. 28-Dec. 26. Tickets start at $25. 617-576-9278, www.CentralSquareTheater.org


Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.