by Matthew Falduto
Iowa City – Riverside’s latest production, Relativity by Mark St. Germain, asks the question, “Which is more important, to be a great man or to be a good man?” Greatness is personified by the character of Albert Einstein, perhaps the most brilliant scientist of the 20th century. However, we learn that Einstein, while certainly great, was never a good man, as he abandoned his wife and children. All of this comes out as Einstein is interviewed by Margaret Harding, who claims to be a reporter, though it’s pretty obvious in the first few minutes that there’s more to her than meets the eye.
Good versus great is an interesting question, but the script gives it short shrift, perhaps because there’s no character that represents ‘good’ the way Einstein represents ‘great’. While there are moments of insight and humor, overall the script spends too much time talking about issues rather than actually dramatizing them.
Much of Angie Toomsen’s direction is really strong, particularly the early cat and mouse moments between Einstein and Harding, and the way in which Einstein’s assistant, Helen Dukas, inserts herself into the scenes. However, there was one crucial moment in the play which required a stronger choice. It’s a moment of revelation and it’s presented in such a way that it’s easy to miss what just happened. It’s hard to go into too much detail as I’d be giving away the central mystery of the play, but suffice it to say, the drama of the moment was underplayed and consequently almost lost.
Jim Kern was wonderful as Einstein. He portrayed his passion for ‘greatness’ over ‘goodness’ with a sincere intensity. His Einstein moved across the space carefully, and one got the idea that this was also how Einstein’s mind worked – carefully and calmly finding the answers to questions. Kern also knows how to deliver the acerbic wit of the character.
Saffron Henke appeared to be having a bit of an off night, which was certainly unusual for such an accomplished actress. She fumbled half a dozen lines and often seemed less connected to her fellow actors. She was most effective during the early questioning of Einstein. Once a big reveal happens, she seemed to lose the ability to connect with her scene partner, whether it was Kern or Hartsgrove Mooers, and her character’s motivations and desires seemed muddled just when they should have become more clear. Some of that, I suppose, was the fault of the script.
Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers added much humor to the play as Helen Dukas. She can create laughs with just a raised eyebrow and pursed lips. Hartsgrove Mooers brought a dynamic energy to the stage whenever she appeared and her character’s arrival was often a welcome interruption to the somewhat tedious conversation between Einstein and Harding in the second half of the play.
Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s set is marvelous. Most of it is a beautifully created version of Einstein’s study, but on stage right, a wall and a bookshelf disintegrate and in the background we see chalkboards covered with equations. It was an excellent way of emphasizing the Einstein character.
Relativity is part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, which means this script is also being presented by theaters in Florida, Washington state, and Illinois. It’s exciting for our community that Riverside is part of this national movement to present new works. You can find more about information about this project here.
Relativity plays at Riverside through April 30. Tickets are available here.