Prolific D.C.-based playwright Karen Zacarias intertwines themes of motherhood and scientific discovery from a deliciously quirky perspective in “Legacy of Light,” an entertaining new comedy getting a classy launch from Arena Stage. Zacarias has previously been produced by several area theaters; her “The Sins of Sor Juana” reaped a Helen Hayes Award as the 2000 season’s best new play. She was commissioned by Arena to write “Legacy” as her first mainstage presentation there, a project nurtured through readings, a workshop and other assistance from the theater.
The play unfolds simultaneously in 18th century France and contemporary America, where two women are pushing the boundaries of physics. One is Emilie du Chatelet (Lise Bruneau), the French mathematician who discovered an important principle that discredited theories held by Isaac Newton and the philosopher Voltaire. (She said the energy of a moving object is proportional not to its velocity, but to the square of its velocity.)
In the U.S., a married but childless astrophysicist named Olivia (Carla Harting) has made the exciting discovery of a new planet.
The two women are both grappling with issues of motherhood — Emilie is pregnant and worried she might die in childbirth, while Olivia has engaged a surrogate mother to carry the child she can’t conceive. With several performers playing more than one role, the twin scenarios unfold on multiple planes in alternating and occasionally interwoven scenes reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” (coincidentally playing at D.C.’s Folger Theater).
Arena a.d. Molly Smith has assembled a terrific cast that handles respective assignments with great agility. She directs with a feathery touch that emphasizes the play’s subtle ironies, its occasional buffoonery and wry humor.
Zacarias is developing into an accomplished writer whose dialogue is witty and believable. She has populated this play with spunky, earthy characters and engagingly pretentious ones as needed, while concocting an ingeniously woven plot that ties together neatly in the final scene. En route, several characters stop to address the audience about the historical figures or the science underlying the play, another ingratiating feature.
Bruneau and Harting both excel as intriguing women who are fallible and vulnerable on a personal level while intellectually intimidating to their awed contemporaries. In the French aristocrat’s case, that includes Voltaire, played with delightful pomposity by Stephen Schnetzer. The actor comes close to stealing the show as he crystallizes the scientific and moral issues with profound asides: “Every man is guilty of the good he did not do,” he intones.
Other winning perfs are turned in by quick-change artists David Covington, Lindsey Kyler and Michael Russotto, all of whom play difficult dual roles in both eras. (Harting also has a minor role in the France scenes.)
And change they do. Linda Cho’s elaborate costumes capture the age of enlightenment’s excesses, including powdered wigs, bright coats and the fanciest of gowns. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s versatile set is nicely suggestive of opulent interiors, a modern house and a dark forest, with trees ripe for climbing.
Zacarias has written this entertaining play with a shrewd eye for the economies and interests of today’s theater. It is a flight of fancy with a relevant component, containing expansive roles that will be popular with performers. Women, especially, will admire the strength, intellectual depth and human qualities of the play’s female characters.