CAMBRIDGE — When a theater company describes the heroine of the play it’s presenting as a “physicist,” a “card shark,” and a “bad ass” — not to mention “outspoken, revolutionary, and brilliantly sexy,” you might feel you’re being encouraged to give her a standing ovation at the beginning of the evening rather than waiting till the end. Not that the heroine of Lauren Gunderson’s 2009 drama “Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight” needs much defending.
Born in Paris in 1706, and just 42 when she died, Emilie du Châtelet was a mathematician and physicist who became Voltaire’s collaborator and his lover. She also translated Latin and Greek plays and philosophical works into French, as well as Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica.” She critiqued English philosopher John Locke; she wrote a commentary on the Bible; she advocated for women’s education. Her investigation of kinetic energy helped pave the way for Einstein’s E = mc2.
The Nora Theatre production of “Emilie” marks the Boston acting debut of the company’s new artistic director, Lee Mikeska Gardner, and the title role is not an easy assignment, since Emilie is on stage for the entire two hours and 20 minutes. She doesn’t even get to leave during intermission; Gunderson directs that the marquise should remain at her desk working out equations. (Nora does find an ingenious, and legitimate, way to give Gardner a break.) The other characters revolve around Emilie: Voltaire (Steven Barkhimer); a “Gentleman” (Lewis D. Wheeler) who plays her husband and also her last lover, Jean François de Saint-Lambert; a “Soubrette” (Sophorl Ngin) who appears variously as Emilie herself, as Emilie’s daughter, and as Voltaire’s sexy niece; and a “Madame” (Michelle Dowd) whose roles include Emilie’s mother. The conceit of the play is that Time and Space are allowing Emilie a night to relive her life, one last chance to figure everything out. She’s not allowed to touch anyone, so for scenes involving contact, the Soubrette has to stand in for her.
Steven Royal’s set at Central Square Theater is as beautiful as it is intimidating. The playing space is a long corridor with the audience on both sides. The floor and the wall at one end are densely covered with equations; at the other end a huge circle with the signs of the Zodiac on its rim encompasses a chalkboard on which Emilie tallies her scores for “Philosophy” and “Love” as the evening progresses.
But you don’t need to understand the difference between Newton’s F = mv and Gottfried Leibniz’s F = mv2, or follow Leibniz’s concept of living force, to appreciate that Emilie herself is a living force. And Gardner gives a tour de force performance, whether she’s warning Voltaire, “I am not that easily deduced,” or slyly asking him, “Are you jealous that I’m sharing orbits with another man?” “Emilie” is all about orbits, personal and professional, and Gardner is passionately spontaneous as she balances getting physics with getting physical. Barkhimer’s gimpy Voltaire (he’s wearing period shoes, whereas Gardner gets to go barefoot) is a boyish, occasionally peevish, delight, and if at times he seems more like Emilie’s son than her lover, well, that’s how Gunderson wrote the part.
The other characters are more peripheral. Wheeler is blankly comic as Emilie’s husband and as Jean François; Ngin is intense if a bit callow as Emilie; Dowd has her best moment reading Emilie’s letter to a misguided secretary of the Academy of Sciences. But director Judy Braha keeps Gardner and Barkhimer orbiting each other, as if they were the halves of a binary star, and by the end the standing ovation — for Emilie, for the play, and for the production — is well deserved.