Philadelphia favorite Peter DeLaurier reprises his role as the ground-breaking physicist Richard Feynman in Lantern Theater Company’s remount of its 2006 hit QED by Peter Parnell. Inspired by Feynman’s own writings and his biography by friend and colleague Ralph Leighton (Tuva or Bust!), QED is about much more than the eponymous topic of quantum electrodynamics that garnered Feynman the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. Set in his office at the California Institute of Technology during one day and night in June 1986 (two years before his death at the age of 69), the play explores both the professional and human sides of the scientist/professor/author and self-taught artist/amateur actor/husband, who lost the first of his three wives to tuberculosis and was soon to lose his own life to cancer.
Under M. Craig Getting’s animated direction, DeLaurier gives a tour-de-force portrayal of a man who is at once brilliant and eccentric, mature in his intellect and childlike in his enthusiasm (“Remember that everything is interesting”). Directly addressing the audience, DeLaurier’s performance is charismatic and personal (if not always consistent in his feigned New York accent), exhibiting a full range of emotions and rapid-fire thoughts as his Feynman multi-tasks while considering the complex mysteries of the universe, relishing his forays into the arts and world cultures, and contemplating the puzzle of his own approaching mortality. He becomes intense as he ruminates over his upcoming lecture on “What We Know” and on his memories of the Manhattan Project, the Challenger disaster, and his beloved wife’s illness. Then his face lights up and his eyes twinkle as he sings and plays the bongos for a school production of South Pacific, rhapsodizes over the excitement of problem solving, and instinctively flirts with one of the many students who idolize him.
Dirk Durossette’s scenic design cleverly combines references to the classroom and the cosmos, with expansive blackboards and chalk equations that extend well beyond the physics professor’s office, and Millie Hiibel’s costumes capture the two aspects of Feynman’s persona, in traditional white shirt and khaki pants, and in the colorful stage garb he dons while beating his bongo and belting out ”There Is Nothing like a Dame.” Patrick Lamborn’s sound design is perfectly modulated, and Joseph Glodek’s lighting subtly captures the transition from day to night, as well as Feynman’s shifting moods, from bright and vibrant to dark and sorrowful.
The excellent Clare Mahoney, in her Lantern debut, pops in and out as Feynman’s adoringly persistent (fictional) student Miriam Field; her impactful appearance in Act II, filled with youthful energy, hero-worship, and drive (and a little too much to drink!) convinces him not to give up his fight against cancer, his zest for life, or his admitted love of women (“All women!”). In the end, the pair’s spontaneous life-affirming dance has an infectious exuberance that will make you glad that you’re alive and that you’ve experienced the Lantern’s tribute to this thinking and feeling 20th-century Renaissance man.
[St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th & Ludlow streets] November 20-December 14, 2014; lanterntheater.org.
- Read Kathryn Osenlund’s companion review of QED