IOWA CITY — Britannica.com says Albert Einstein’s E = mc2 equation “expresses the fact that mass and energy are the same physical entity and can be changed into each other.”
That’s also an apt description for “Relativity,” a new drama by Mark St. Germain being prepped for Broadway by premiering at four theaters across the country, including Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. The show opened Friday and continues through April 30.
It’s a very special “Relativity,” indeed, in the hands of director Angie Toomsen and a trio of the Corridor’s elite actors: Jim Kern, Saffron Henke and Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers. All are an interchangeable mass of energy, ebbing and flowing and swirling about the most stunning scenery I’ve seen on the Riverside main stage.
Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s set fractures from the reality of Einstein’s home office to the fragments of his mind. It’s surrounded by impeccable, moody lighting by S. Benjamin Farrar, also augmenting Jenny Nutting Kelchen’s crisp, period costuming and Cami Sackett’s technical direction.
The theater’s intimate setting is perfect for this glimpse into the private world of one of the greatest minds the world has known. It’s a play built on “what-ifs” and “if onlys” — those corrosive dramas that unfold in our minds during sleepless nights and can eat away at our souls.
It’s 1948 and Einstein’s neat and tidy realm is shaken to the core when a reporter with a secret agenda hounds him for an interview. After repeatedly failing to get past his secretary, she meets him on the street near his home in Princeton, N.J., and follows him to his inner sanctum staunchly guarded by the prickly Miss Dukas (Hartsgrove Mooers).
A cat-and-mouse game ensues, as the reporter (Henke) dives ever deeper beneath the surface of Einstein’s carefully crafted facade. Her probing questions reveal just how absent the absent-minded professor has been from his personal life.
Was the great man also a good man?
All-consumed by science, his sacrifices have created wrinkles in time that are not easily erased. His relationships with his wives, his loves and his children have all been cast aside in favor of the alternate reality in which he lives.
The reporter holds an unforgiving mirror to his life that keeps cracking with every revelation.
Kern is astonishing as Einstein, crumpling into the rumpled character with the wild hair, oversized cardigan and lack of socks, for which he was known. As Einstein tries to command the situation, the reporter relentlessly peels away at his layers, until he roars with belligerence then sinks into silence. Henke’s unforgiving, tortured reporter is dogged in her pursuit of truth, hurtling accusations, then turning on her heel in defiance.
It’s a tour de force creation for both actors.
The show runs just under 90 minutes, with no intermission. To stop the momentum would be a travesty.
IF YOU GO
— What: “Relativity”
— Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
— When: To April 30; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
— Tickets: $18 to $30, $12 Thursday student special; Riverside Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org/relativity
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