Behind the iconic scientist, there was a real woman

Lee Mikeska Gardner & Debra Wise in “The Half-Life of Marie Curie”. Photo: Nile Scott Studios

CAMBRIDGE — Behind the Nobel prizes and the scientific discoveries that changed the world, there was a woman.

And in 1911, after the death of her husband Pierre Curie in 1906, she was a woman on the ropes. Marie Curie was a scientific genius, but she was also a woman, and fame and talent were no defense when she found herself tarred and feathered by the press after her affair with a fellow married scientist became public.

She needed to be rescued. And a fellow scientist — her close friend, the British engineer, physicist, mathematician, and suffragist Hertha Ayrton  – gave her refuge from the storm.

TheCatalyst Collaborative@MIT series has given us many fine science-themed theatrical moments, but Lauren Gunderson’s “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” at the Central Square Theater is not really about the accomplishments of two pioneering scientists, No, this is a relationship play about two women – both widowed with children — who found each other when one was most vulnerable and distraught, and together forged a way forward.

While this piece isn’t quite up to the high standards Gunderson has set in her  other locally-produced works such as “Silent Sky,”  “The Wickhams” and “Miss Bennet,” it does benefit from the talents of the artistic directors of the two resident theater companies at Central Square.

 Lee Mikeska Gardner, who plays Curie, leads The Nora@Central Square Theater (formerly the Nora Theatre Company), while Debra Wise, who plays Aryton, heads the Underground Railway Theater. Wise recently announced she will be leaving her post, which she has held since 1998, after this season.

Director Bryn Boice, one of the busiest directors on the local theater scene, is fresh off an excellent production of “The Sound Inside” at SpeakEasy Stage Company. She does her best to inject movement and fluidity into what is often a talky, static two-hander, albeit one that features Gunderson’s signature  lively dialogue, built on the exhaustive research she does on her subjects.

We can imagine Curie and Aryton agreeing and nodding their heads as they swear “science would be better without the scientists.”

Despite her loving marriage to the Frenchman Pierre Curie and her own accomplishments, the Polish-born Marie Curie was never really sure that the French people had her back, and she was overwrought and in utter despair when Aryton first makes an unannounced visit.

Curie finally succumbs to Aryton’s pleas to leave France and join her in her home on the English coast for the summer of 1912, where the two found privacy and solace in each other’s company, even if there were bumps and bruises along the way.

Always lurking close to the surface is the rampant chauvinism and sexism of the times that saw the Nobel Prize committee, scandalized by Curie’s sexual conduct, try to disinvite Curie from picking up her second Nobel, for chemistry, in person.

The double standard in effect at the time when it came to the conduct of women enraged Hertha, a devoted suffragette. She saw in the scorn heaped on Curie and the refusal to give women the vote as linked, part of the effort to stop women “from being alive in this world without restriction.”

Hertha’s support for Curie is strained by the small vial of radium that Curie always has on her person, at least until Hertha asks her to safely store it away. knowing full well Curie is acutely aware of the dangers of the radiation that would eventually kill her.

The deadly directions that science would eventually take Curie’s work is briefly acknowledged by Gunderson as Wise’s Hertha notes Curie’s work was both “respected and feared,” but the playwright otherwise chooses not to go down that road.

With her work, Gunderson – and, of course, The Nora — are doing a service to all young women who are eyeing STEM careers, providing evidence that women were doing great work in scientific fields even when the fields they worked in were virtually closed to them, or when their work was often stolen or credited to a male colleague.

And by humanizing Curie and Ayrton, Gunderson also celebrates and lifts them, making sure they won’t be forgotten.

The Nora@Central Square Theater production of Lauren Gunderson’s “The Half-Life of Marie Curie.” ACatalyst Collaborative@MIT production. Directed by Bryn Boice.   At The Central Square Theater through Dec. 26.