‘The Catastrophist’: A science story that sings

Actor William DeMeritt in tech rehearsal and filming of Lauren Gunderson’s play “The Catastrophist” produced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre. Photo courtesy of Marin Theatre Comp

PROVIDENCE – Not every playwright can make science-based stories sing.

But Lauren M. Gunderson is not just any playwright. Since 2015, she has been the most-produced playwright in the country (aside from William Shakespeare) in two different years, and has been almost a constant presence in this area with works such as “You and I,” “Miss Bennet,” and science-themed pieces such as “Silent Sky,” “Leap” and “The Half-Life of Marie Curie.”

Early on in the pandemic, the San Francisco-based Marin Theatre Company realized there would be no live audiences any time soon and began looking for a work that could translate easily to a virtual production.

Marin commissioned Gunderson, the troupe’s playwright-in-residence, to come up with a work that fit the criteria.

The result has been the world premiere of “The Catastrophist,” an 80-minute work presented by Marin and Round House Theatre, which is streaming on the Trinity Repertory Company’s website through May 31. It explores the life of Gunderson’s husband, Nathan Wolfe, a virologist who was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World for his work tracking viral pandemics.

Marin Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, who also directs “The Catastrophist,” initially suggested a theatrical adaptation of Wolfe’s book “The Viral Storm. “

But Gunderson responded with a variation to that prompt. The resulting play is about her husband and his work, but also his relationship with his father and his sons.

Actor William DeMeritt is charged with inhabiting Wolfe’s mind and body, and he effectively and convincingly conveys the joys and sorrows, the science and viruses and Wolfe’s obsession with them, which leads him around the world to research and combat both viruses and pandemics.

Always in the background is a ticking time bomb – the Wolfe family genes that have led to early deaths from heart disease for many members of the Wolfe family. They were the genes that took Nathan Wolfe’s father Charles away when Nathan was only 10.

There is lingering bitterness that Nathan never knew the grandfather for whom he was named.

Gunderson’s story digs deeply in the relationship between a father and a son and the things that both bind them together and set them apart. Nathan Wolfe is “a proud Jew” who respects the religious traditions of his parents but doesn’t believe in God.

Yet the love that flows between them and the ties that bind them are much stronger than any individual differences.

There are harrowing moments when Nathan Wolfe is forced to confront his own mortality, as he fears his young sons will never get to really know him.

A lesser playwright might be flummoxed  at explaining the complexity of viruses and pandemics. Gunderson is able to without the audience’s eyes beginning to glaze over, always remembering she is writing for those who may have never taken a science course.

She mocks the stereotype of a humorless scientist penned up in a lab, consumed by data, by presenting Nathan as a living, breathing human who laughs, loves, cries and cares for his fellow man.

She so draws us into her husband’s life that we become fellow travelers, with him as he does his important work and we share his sorrows and triumphs.

Trinity Rep is one of 10 theaters across the country streaming “The Catastrophist.” Tickets are $30 per household with discounts available for Trinity Rep subscribers. Tickets and more information can be found at www.trinityrep.com/catastrophist.

The Trinity Repertory Company presentation of “The Catastrophist.” A world premiere co-production of Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre. Written by Lauren M. Gunderson. Directed by Jasson Minadakis. Director of Photography/Editor Peter Ruocco Lighting Designer Wen-Ling Liao+ Composer/Sound Designer Chris Houston/Implied Music Costume Designer Sarah Smith Through May 31 at trinityrep.com/catastrophist.