In a way, it's unfortunate that the dazzling production of "Arcadia" at the Folger Theatre is running at the same time as the world premiere of Karen Zacarias' play "Legacy of Light" at Arena Stage.
Both plays involve the mingling of past and present. Both deal with the disparate passions for love and learning.
Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" is a masterwork of erudition and heartache, and "Legacy," likewise, has its moments of engagement and charm. Yet the latter is more flatfooted in its melding of the mysteries of the universe and mathematics with matters of the heart.
"Legacy" is, in a manner of speaking, what would have happened if Thomasina, the teenage math visionary from "Arcadia," had lived past her 16th year. Thomasina's scientific clairvoyance can be seen in "Legacy's" central character, Emilie de Chatelet (played by Lise Bruneau as a paragon of beauty and brilliance), an 18th century French noblewoman and physicist who challenges the Newtonian universe. She comes up with her own theory about the properties of light that affirms "everything changes but nothing is lost."
The lover and muse of Voltaire (a commanding Stephen Schnetzer, known best to daytime drama fans for his roles on the soaps "One Life to Live" and "As the World Turns" and seen earlier at Arena in "Noises Off"), Emilie embodies the Enlightenment in the rigor of her thinking and the classical grace of her bearing. She is similar to Thomasina in that both share a sense of time running out, as well as formulating advanced theories but not having the hours or the technology to see them through.
"Legacy of Light" shifts into the present, with astrophysicist Olivia (a crisp and touching Carla Harting) and husband Peter (Michael Russotto) becoming parents via a surrogate — the dreams-filled Millie (a vibrant Lindsey Kyler, who also tackles the role of Pauline, Emilie's daughter in the 18th century). Olivia, however, would rather birth a planet, and her fears about mothering blend with Emilie's fierce devotion to her children that she's convinced — and the unexpected pregnancy at age 42 — will destroy her and put an end to her scientific breakthroughs.
The contrast between the values and concerns of 18th century France and 21st century New Jersey are rich with humor and poignancy, as Olivia makes decisions about work and domestic life of which Emilie could never dream. The resonances between these two women would be enough to fill many plays. But "Legacy" veers off into some wobbly territory in its subplot about the shaky finances of Millie and her immature brother Lewis (David Covington) and also in the second act when everything turns whimsical.
Whimsy is tricky to pull off — playwright Sarah Ruhl perhaps does it most nimbly — and proof of this difficulty is seen in how "Legacy" derails when Voltaire and Emilie crop up in suburban New Jersey. Jokes about gauche Americans and modern conveniences abound, and this fairy-tale device is meant to be fanciful. Instead, though, it is self-consciously serendipitous. The ending seems contrived, not only in Olivia's almost magical embracing of motherhood but also in the "Gee whiz, nothing's changed in 300 years!" homilies and the too-neat tying up of everyone's lives.
WHAT: "Legacy of Light," by Karen Zacarias
WHERE: Arena Stage at Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 14.
TICKETS: $25 to $66
WEB SITE: www.arenastage.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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