Review of Capacity
By Rebecca Louise Miller
Directed by Elizabeth & John Craven
For tickets / schedule :
Main Stage West, Sebastopol

RUN: September 1-18, 2016
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(September 2, 2016)

Capacity Main Stage West

In 1905, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity shook the world, prompting a prodigious career that echoes through history. Single minded and passionate, he fell in love quickly, without the sensitivity and courtesy required to maintain a long-term relationship. Capacity gives insight into his life through the eyes of his first wife, Mileva, a physicist who entered Zurich Polytechnic in the same year as Einstein. The play unfolds their intellectual attraction, whirlwind romance, and its affect on Mileva’s career. Forced to separate from her out of wedlock daughter, she is too troubled to focus on her studies, which Einstein cannot understand.

Their love dissipates until he appears with a cold list of demands taken directly from one of his actual letters to her. “A. You will see to it (1) that my clothes and linen are kept in order, (2) that I am served three regular meals a day in my room. B. You will renounce all personal relations with me, except when these are required to keep up social appearances…You must leave my bedroom and study at once without protesting when I ask you to”. Unable to keep up the façade of caring for her, and caught up in an infatuation with his cousin Elsa, he leaves her to raise two young sons on her own, including Eduard, who suffered from mental illness. In the discussion of whether Mileva co-authored the paper on Relativity, or if she was merely a clever sounding board, the play takes a conservative stance, which seems to be upheld by existing evidence.

Capacity Main Stage West

Freedom is a recurring theme in the play; is it the ability to pursue a goal, or the freedom to love and feel a connection with others? Einstein insists Mileva can only know freedom when unencumbered and returning to physics, but she postulates a different kind of living. Early scenes highlight the role of women at university in the turn-of-the-century, indicating their struggles through banter, rather than heavy force-fed dogma. Projections indicate passing years, which is a helpful guide to a play that jumps through time, keeping the audience guessing which era is next. Rick Eldredge’s scenic painting is startling, evocative of an event horizon in electric blue, amber, and grey as the mood calls for it. Tracy Hinman’s subdued costume designs capture the elegant early 20th century silhouette. The set is simple wooden furniture, brought to life by the actors into raucous smoke-filled rooms or an unsettling psychiatric clinic. Due to shifting through time and space, the constant transitions feel artificial, rather like a museum tour guide racing through fascinating rooms at a breakneck speed, unwilling to stop and savor the exhibits.

Ilana Niernberger’s portrayal of Mileva is inspiring. Her trademark dark nuances slide a sharp, witty student into depression, hopelessness, and trauma. Her pleading when Einstein leaves her is heart-breaking. Sam Coughlin’s resemblance to Albert Einstein is eerie, and his boyish charm in the early years chasing after fleeting theories shows a glimpse into the mind of a genius. Playwright Rebecca Louise Miller finds the right balance between technical mathematics and down to earth dialog, giving a flavor of science without the play becoming a lecture on physics. The supporting cast shifts between multiple roles, although a bedside scene of Hermann Einstein was a confusing moment of comedy in an otherwise sincere story.

Mingled in the compelling series of vignettes is the idea that an emotion more powerful than love is wonder. Rather than being driven by desire, characters reach for something beyond themselves, causing clashes in everyday life. Capacity is a study in wonder—its beauty of creation and destruction. As Game of Thrones vividly comments, “many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse; they cling to the realm, or the gods, or love—delusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” Mileva was willing to give up everything for love, only to find that Einstein was as elusive as light, always speeding away beyond grasping. In the end, wonder is what survived, illuminating her face in the final moment of the play.

Main Stage West’s Capacity is a rare opportunity to enter the world of Albert Einstein and wrestle with the question of what freedom truly means. Journey through an evening of intellectual stimulation and tragic love with an exceptional cast.