Karen Zacarias’ play “Legacy of Light” is the last show I will ever see as a Mercer student, and I am not exaggerating: the Mercer Players could not have ended this season on a better note. Visually stunning and brilliantly acted, “Legacy” shows how well the Players can take a wonderful (albeit strange) script and turned it into a breathtaking piece of art.
“Legacy of Light” interweaves the stories of Émilie du Châtelet, a French physicist whose notable work was translating Isaac Newton’s “Principia”, and Olivia Hastings Brown, a modern astrophysicist who has recently discovered a new planet in its beginning stages. Crossing the lines of space and time, the story follows both women as they hit the same pivotal point in their lives: pregnancy.
Émilie becomes pregnant at the age of 42 by her young lover (who is neither her older lover, the poet Voltaire, or her husband, the Marquis du Châtelet) and fears childbirth might cause her death, while Olivia—after a brush with death herself—decides she wants a baby and, because she cannot conceive, turns to a young woman named Millie for her help as a surrogate mother. Throughout the play Émilie and Olivia wrestle with the complications a new child will bring to their work and their identity. It is a play about vocation, parenthood, dreams and legacy.
The Mercer Players took this rich, layered material and ran with it. As per usual, director Scott Mann hit a home run with his selection of the ensemble. Julie Allen was fantastic as Émilie, bringing a stateliness and composure that fit her wealthy French character very well. Allen’s portrayal brought out the calculated restraint required of a brilliant, powerful woman in a patriarchal society.
Patrick Mathis brought an energized performance as Émilie’s devoted and hot-tempered lover, Voltaire. Mathis—in what may be his best performance I’ve seen on the Backdoor stage—delivered some of the funniest lines in the show with finesse, capturing Voltaire’s barbed tone but also the depth of the poet’s feeling for Émilie and her daughter Pauline. Speaking of Pauline, Maggie Rogers did a wonderful job bringing her character to life during Rogers’ debut as a Mercer Player. Her character was noticeably younger than the others of her time period, and she pulled off the role with a sweetness and youthful exuberance—as did Kevin Kersey, who played Émilie’s young lover Saint-Lambert. John Farrington made a steady, affectionate Marquis that seemed befitting of a Frenchman who was tolerant of his wife’s many lovers.
From the contemporary half of the play, Maconite Liane Treiman was wonderful as the brilliant but scatterbrained Olivia. Her performance was convincing, particularly strong at her moments of crisis as she wrestled with her fears that she cannot handle being a mother. Her dynamic with Liam McDermott, who played her husband Peter, was lovely to watch; the two picked up each other’s lines in a very natural way, as one would expect of a long-married couple. This role was very different from McDermott’s previous performances, and he brought a paternal warmth to his character that was a pleasant, refreshing surprise.
Suzanne Stroup was perfect as Millie, the young woman chosen to carry the Browns’ baby. Stroup convincingly conveyed the mood swings of being pregnant and being young and impulsive. She had great chemistry with Alex Preston, who played her brother Lewis. In the second act, Preston’s confrontation with McDermott’s character creates one of the strongest scenes in the play, carried off flawlessly by the excellent acting between Preston, McDermott, Stroup and Treiman.
Visually, the show was beautiful. The backdrop looked like a watercolor of the halos cast by differently colored lights, and the trees crafted by the cast lent a visual element to the play’s recurring mention of Newton’s story in which he discovers gravity thanks to a falling apple. However, the most stunning visual element of the show was the lighting. Marian Zielinksi outdid herself with lights that cast fragmented patterns on the floor, the backdrop and the actors, as if they were cast through a stained-glass window. The lights evoked the idea of constellations, fitting the show’s emphasis on physics and astronomy, and created a lovely continuity between the two different time periods.
“Legacy of Light” was probably my favorite of all the Mercer Players shows I have seen during my time here, and I would like to personally extend a thank-you to the cast and crew for such an incredible performance. Good luck to the graduating seniors: the Backdoor Theatre will miss you dearly. And to the actors and crew they leave behind: break a leg. May you have many more performances like this one.