All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Beating bongos with flawless aplomb, dancing with ingenuous abandon, donning an elaborate costume with panache, or entertaining enthusiastic Russian guests, Peter DeLaurier endows Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman with a zest for life and appreciation of fun.
DeLaurier is also affecting when Feynman describes his relationship with his first wife, Arline, who dies while the pair are in the throes of early love, and when the scientist, who as familiar with biology as with his own field, confronts the possibility of his own imminent demise.
DeLaurier can be all that Feynman is because this consistently wonderful actor inhabits his character’s skin to give a fluid, spirited, passionate performance that is more akin to living as another as it is portraying someone in “QED,” Peter Parnell’s revealing play about Feynman, now at Lantern Theater.
Feynman may be a specialist, a genius who sifted through Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and other 20th century giants who clarified the workings of the world by studying its tiniest, almost imperceptible matter and introduced particles, waves, and combinations that Feynman sophisticated further with his groundbreaking mathematical equation defining quantum electrodynamics, the QED referred to by Parnell and the reason for Feynman’s Nobel. He is also a polymath who takes an interest is aboriginal cultures and wants, in particular, to learn more about the Tuvas in a small, remote corner between China and Mongolia. He relishes the music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and delights in appearing in a science department production of their “South Pacific” at Cal Tech. He paints. once producing a portrait of Madame Marie Curie. And he is a whiz at that bongo.
At least DeLaurier makes him so while giving a bravura overview of a man who embraces life and has so much to offer but who has to face the finite nature of life and make a critical decision about a surgical procedure that can, at best, buy him time, some extra years, rather than prolonging the fun he derives from living and working for an appreciable period.
Feynman is engaged in several things when he meet him. His helpful assistant has informed him by telephone he is scheduled to deliver a speech, “What We Know,” in two days. He is looking forward to playing the chief of Bali Ha’i in “South Pacific.” He is waging a war he finds stimulating with others with whom he’s partnered to write a report about NASA’s Challenger disaster. He is entertaining Russian physicists he met at a conference. He coaches one of his more talented students. He conspires with a colleague to go to Tuva for primary anthropological research. He relates to his current wife while remembering his former bride. He realizes he is close to death.
The exhilarating part of DeLaurier’s performance is the actor doesn’t play individual moods or highs and lows. He behaves as most people do, in one consistent pattern that leaves room for anger, elation, and reflection but includes those emotions or activities as part of a whole. DeLaurier’s Feynman doesn’t compartmentalize. He lives completely and indulges whims of the moment as much as he ponders the future of scientific theory, the best ways to teach, and how to grasp the realities of the disease that cannot do other but cause his end.
The performance is great for its naturalness, for the effortless flow DeLaurier keeps captivating and seamless. It has vim and a self-effacing naughtiness that helps you comprehend Feynman’s phenomenal appeal. You see the man who, almost 27 years after his death, has cadres of fans called “Feymaniacs” and whose books, which demystify and popularize science, continue to sell and attract new adherents. If Richard Feynman was even half the robust, creative, and animated a man DeLaurier portrays him to be, QED would not be the only thing about him that suggests “dynamics.” One can’t help but be drawn to such a man who can wed piercing intellectual gifts with the pleasure he derives from music and, in particular, imparting his information through teaching. I also admired a sardonic side DeLaurier gives his character. It comes out in the various ways he intones the title of his speech, “What We Know,” sometimes moaning the words, at other times saying them with exaggerated diction like a Shakespearean ham. You also see it when Feynman is trying to re-create his doctor’s logic in his own mind.
DeLaurier, who has played Feynman in a previous Lantern production of “QED,” told me that one of the things he admired about Feynman is him telling Cal Tech he didn’t want to devote all of his time to research and had it put in his contract that, every semester, he would be scheduled to teach. “What We Know,” he posits in “QED,” is pitifully little but must be passed on by experts so a next generation of scientists that increase that little by a scooch or a smidge.
In depicting such a diverse individual in such entirety, DeLaurier ranges with vigor all over the Lantern stage. One minute he is playing a drum rhythm to illustrate something from Rodgers and Hammerstein or from Tuvan culture. Another he is theorizing or cautioning people to realize that once science unleashes an empirical concept, people, including scientists, might be unhappy or have mixed feeling about an advancement’s actual use. The development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos and the attack on Hiroshima trigger these thoughts. The carelessness Feynman perceives in the technicians who failed to check the Challenger’s O-rings, when the effect of freezing temperatures on such material is known, is another.
Parnell does not go too deeply into the complexity QED and its wider application, but he and DeLaurier give more than an impression of the scientist and mathematical breakthrough Feynman’s discovery was. The joy of being smart and attuned to the infinite variety of life comes not when Feynman is explaining his achievement to us but when he has the chance to share it with physics student.
Clare Mahoney appears in “QED” as one of the brightest and most inquisitive in Feynman’s current class. At first, preoccupied with other matters, including the Challenger and his declining health, he finds her questions cloying. But when Mahoney’s character, Miriam Field, persists and suggests a possible offshoot of Feynman’s work, a spark is lit, and you suddenly see the man who loves doubt and challenge and who jumps when something new, be it an idea or a woman, in his midst.
“QED” director M. Craig Getting is especially astute in the way he follows Parnell’s direction to have Feynman’s first interview with Miriam held through a closed, locked office door. We see Feynman, or DeLaurier’s reaction to Miriam’s part of the conversation although she, from her angle outside the door, can’t. Most delightfully, we see when Feynman goes from being mildly attentive to engaged and fascinated by what his student is saying. This is a particularly fine moment in Getting’s production because it illustrates how he takes advantage of the presence of another character to give “QED” a new tone, and have DeLaurier, as Feynman, move and respond differently.
Miriam’s entrance does not only provide some relief from one voice, relief we don’t really need given DeLaurier’s energy, but it establishes a contrapuntal rhythm for the production and lets us see how Feynman interacts with another person directly, something we otherwise hear only in telephone conversations, shouts down the hall, and anecdotes. “QED” is richer for the appearance of Miriam, and Mahoney plays her with distinction, conveying the intelligence, persistence, and poise of her character, who after all, is debating one of the foremost authorities in their mutual field.
DeLaurier’s portrayal brings you to Feynman even more than some of the scientist’s thoughts about life, death, afterlife, science vs. religion, education, researchers’ responsibility, and playing by or against the rules. DeLaurier and Getting are careful to stress some ideas, such as one that says a scientist’s job is more to rule out false hypotheses than to discover the new and that one must relearn and re-conduct all experiments that came before his or her time to acquire full understanding rather than memorized studies.
Concepts register clearly, but a man is more than concepts, and Peter DeLaurier, above all else, plays a man who has scope, wisdom, and the same personal quandaries we all face, especially when it comes to health and loss. It is seeing a man have and display so many facets that makes “QED” rewarding, not any particular theory or scientific notion. DeLaurier convinces us that Richard Feynman knew and reveled in life, and watching DeLaurier convey that is entertaining in itself.
Ubiquitous Dirk Durossette has devised a magnificent set anchored by two angled blackboards filled with a panoply of intimidating formulae and equations and two smaller blackboards, on which DeLaurier actually writes. The office setting leaves a lot of playing areas, and Durossette was clever about exposing the hall that leads to Feynman’s door. Millie Hiibel kept costumes basic, but I adored the Bali Ha’i costume she provides Feynman and thought the dress Mahoney’s Miriam wears to the party a great one.
“QED” runs through Sunday, December 14, at Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. No performance is schedule for Thanksgiving, Nov. 27, and no matinee is set for Saturday, Dec. 13. Tickets range from $39 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-829-0395 or by visiting http://www.lanterntheater.org.