The recent documentary “Bombshell” highlighted Hedy Lamarr, not for her beauty and acting career but for her achievements as an inventor.
She might have had a counterpart in Emilie du Chatelet, 18th-century French scientist and author, and sometime lover of French writer and philosopher Voltaire.
Contemporary playwright Lauren Gunderson saw in Emilie a woman ahead of her times with resonance for our times. Her play “Emilie, La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight” is the next production at Silver Spring Stage.
“The play gives the opportunity for a brilliant, unconventional character to tell her story,” said Erin Bone Steele, the play’s director. “If not for her love affairs, she might have been forgotten.”
Portraying Emilie is Karen V. Lawrence, who previously appeared at the Stage in “Arabian Night” in 2014.
“I love the role of Emilie, and I definitely hoped I’d get it,” said Lawrence. “I really like the surreal aspects of the staging, the exploration of philosophy and thought in a deeply emotional yet fast-paced way, and the fact that she’s based on a real historical figure that most people have probably not heard much about.”
Lawrence was also drawn by the characters, wit, and “thought-provoking juxtaposition of ideas” in the script.”
There are also challenges: “There are many moving parts in this play, as it combines really interesting ensemble physicality with some pretty cool visual and lighting/sound/music effects, along with fast-paced dialogue, often dealing with fairly intense intellectual and emotional issues.”
How much does the history behind the play count?
Lawrence replied: “It’s not a documentary: as an actor, I’m approaching the biographical Emilie as the jumping-off point, the inspiration, for the real – but independent – character who exists in the world of the play.”
The message of the play is also significant, according to Lawrence.
“It’s a passionate exploration of meaning itself,” she said. “Why are we here, what do we leave behind, and who makes that determination? … How does the interplay between intellectual pursuit and emotional investment work? Is there an ultimate answer to any of it? You could probably watch the play multiple times and see different aspects every time, like any good play.”
Kevin Dykstra, now in his seventh production at the Stage, portrays Voltaire.
“I was drawn to this play for a number of reasons,” he said. “I really liked the playwright’s telling of an interesting story of fascinating and real historical characters – and the way she modernizes the characters … to make the story more accessible.”
Dykstra said he also enjoys the “banter between the characters, particularly between Emilie and Voltaire, simultaneously funny and passionate. “It reminded me of the well-written exchanges between Henry II and Eleanor in ‘The Lion in Winter.’
When he auditioned, Dykstra was hoping to land the part of Voltaire. “His character is arrogant, creative and passionate, but he also has a fragile ego that is tested when he meets an intellectual equal – or perhaps superior – in Emilie.”
As the play progresses, Voltaire shows an admirable side and integrity – but Dykstra doesn’t want to give too much away.
Though “Emilie” is history-based, said Bone Steele, it is a memory play, not historically accurate. “It is Emilie’s chance to tell her story from her point of view. This is a character you may not know of, but will fall in love with by the time you leave the theater.”
Lawrence agreed: When I [researched] Emilie herself I thought, ‘how have I not heard of this person?’”
“This cast and crew are amazing, professional and fun, and universally a joy to work with,” Lawrence said. “Their creative powers are awesome. It’s so much fun already; I think the audience will love what we have for them!”
“Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight” runs Sept. 14 – Oct. 6 at Silver Spring Stage, at 10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring. For more information, call the box office at (301) 593-6036 or visit the theater’s website at www.ssstage.org.