Northlight's Albert Einstein drama examines 'Relativity' in all its forms

  • Mike Nussbaum plays Albert Einstein in Northlight Theatre's rolling world premiere of Mark St. Germain's "Relativity."

    Mike Nussbaum plays Albert Einstein in Northlight Theatre's rolling world premiere of Mark St. Germain's "Relativity." Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Mike Nussbaum returns to Northlight Theatre, which he co-founded 43 years ago with Frank Galati and Greg Kandel, to star as Albert Einstein in Mark St. Germain's "Relativity," directed by BJ Jones.

    Mike Nussbaum returns to Northlight Theatre, which he co-founded 43 years ago with Frank Galati and Greg Kandel, to star as Albert Einstein in Mark St. Germain's "Relativity," directed by BJ Jones. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Posted5/24/2017 9:00 AM

The Northlight Theatre audience at the press opening of "Relativity" greeted Mike Nussbaum at his curtain call as Chicago-area audiences typically do, with a standing ovation.

How else would they honor Chicago theater's elder statesman? At 93, Nussbaum -- the oldest working union stage actor, according to the Actors' Equity Association -- remains a dynamic presence. And he delivers precise, thoughtfully crafted performances like the one that dominates Mark St. Germain's brainy, hypothetical account of a little-known period in the life of Albert Einstein.

 

Nussbaum's astute performance reveals the pioneering physicist -- brilliant, charming, vexing, selfish and unapologetic -- in all his flawed glory.

"I'm not an ordinary man, why should I be treated as such?" asks the philandering academic, who basks in the international celebrity his discoveries fueled.

So when attractive, middle-aged reporter Margaret Harding (played with fervor and determination by Katherine Keberlein) arrives at his Princeton, New Jersey, home in December 1949 requesting an interview, he consents. He does so over the objections of his wary, endlessly devoted housekeeper Helen Dukas (a funny, fiercely protective Ann Whitney).

It becomes apparent that Margaret's interest rests not with his professional accomplishments but with his interpersonal failures. Margaret presses him on his strained relationship with his first wife, Mileva, their two sons and their oldest child, a daughter Lieserl. Born in 1902, a year before the couple married, Lieserl reportedly contracted scarlet fever. She may have succumbed to the infection, or she may have been adopted. Either way, there's no mention of her after 1904. Her existence was unknown until 1986 when letters between Einstein and Mileva, who divorced in 1919, were found in a California bank vault.

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Reporter Margret Harding (Katherine Keberlein) interviews Albert Einstein (Mike Nussbaum) in Mark St. Germain's "Relativity" at Northlight Theatre.
Reporter Margret Harding (Katherine Keberlein) interviews Albert Einstein (Mike Nussbaum) in Mark St. Germain's "Relativity" at Northlight Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Her fate remains a mystery. But not to St. Germain, who imagines Margaret as Lieserl, grown up, with a son of her own, who wants to know why her parents abandoned her.

But family melodrama isn't the point of "Relativity," whose title references both Einstein's theory and our most intimate relationships. Fundamentally, this conversation starter is about greatness vs. goodness. Is it more important to be a great scientist (or artist or philosopher) or a good person (a loyal spouse, a devoted parent)? Einstein argues for the former, insisting a scientist's efforts potentially benefit millions of people across generations. As such, his contributions outweigh his failings as a man, husband and father.

"The purpose of life is to solve its mysteries," he says, not cater to one's family.

Ann Whitney plays housekeeper, protector and sparring partner Helen Dukas to Mike Nussbaum's Albert Einstein in Northlight Theatre's production of "Relativity."
Ann Whitney plays housekeeper, protector and sparring partner Helen Dukas to Mike Nussbaum's Albert Einstein in Northlight Theatre's production of "Relativity." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Margaret disagrees. For a man to be truly great, he must be good, she says. His most enduring contribution is his compassion, empathy, self-sacrifice for his loved ones. She's not wrong. Imagine the impact such a parent, educator or mentor might have. Talk about a ripple effect.

That is one of the great joys of St. Germain's play, whose primary objective is not its plot, which relies on contrivance. The strength of "Relativity" lies in the post-performance debate it will likely spark among theatergoers.

As for Northlight's crisp, unfussy production, under the ever-sure direction of artistic director BJ Jones, its power rests with its fine cast and ever-vital leading man.

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