Dynamic look at pioneer physicist

THEATER

Espey is charming as bongo-playing scientist Feynman

April 28, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

QED" is the abbreviation of the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum ("which was demonstrated"). My father used to kid that the letters, often used at the end of mathematical proofs, actually stood for "Quite Easily Done."

There's nothing easy, however, for the actor who stars in QED -- Peter Parnell's nearly one-man show about Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. At Fell's Point Corner Theatre, where the play is making its Baltimore debut, that actor is Rich Espey, and he's thoroughly charming as this pioneer in the field of quantum electrodynamics (which is also abbreviated "QED").

"Charming" might not be the first adjective that comes to mind in connection with quantum electrodynamics. But as directed by Timothy Fowler, Espey -- whose day job is teaching science at Park School -- has such an affable, enthusiastic manner, he comes across as the Mister Rogers of quantum physics (and that's a compliment).

The actor is helped considerably by the fact that Feynman was a rather eccentric man with eclectic interests. On the one hand, he worked on the Manhattan Project; on the other, he was an avid bongo drummer.

The first act of Parnell's play takes place on a Saturday afternoon in Feynman's office at the California Institute of Technology. He's come in to work on a lecture a few hours before he'll be playing the bongos in a campus production of South Pacific. The second act finds him back in his office after the performance. In both acts, he fields a series of phone calls, including several from his doctor, who's trying to persuade him to undergo additional cancer surgery.

The phone calls are a contrived aspect of a fairly contrived script; the text never explains, for example, why Feynman is talking to us, and the direct address is dropped when he's interrupted by a student (an exuberant Jessica Asch).

But the working of Feynman's perpetually curious mind -- he looks at everything, including his own cancer, as a puzzle -- is dramatically engaging, as is Espey's performance.

This production, incidentally, is fortuitously timed. Not only is 2005 "the World Year of Physics," but next month the U.S. Postal Service will issue a stamp with Feynman's picture as part of its series on American scientists.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 8. Tickets are $14. Call 410-276-7837.

Local writers in N.Y.

There's news out of New York about two Baltimore playwrights.

A play by Heather McDonald, an award-winning playwright who moved to Catonsville a year and a half ago, received a reading, starring Marcia Gay Harden, in New York last week. Titled When Grace Comes In, the drama focuses on an art conservator who abandons her family. An earlier version of the script premiered at California's La Jolla Playhouse in 2002 and was a finalist for the 2003 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

The New York reading, McDonald explained after returning to Baltimore, stemmed from one of two grants for mid-career playwrights she recently received. In this case, the grant came from the graduate writing program at New York University, of which she is an alum. "It was quite a gift to get to do this," she said of the experience, which she described as "exhausting and illuminating."

McDonald is also the recipient of a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communication Group grant to develop a new work based on the life of Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie for the Cleveland Play House/Case Western Reserve University Professional Actor Training Program.

The NEA grant was an especially welcome surprise, she said. Although she initially proposed the Barrie piece two years ago, she figured it didn't stand a chance after the release of the movie Finding Neverland. "When I found out I got the grant, I blurted out on the phone: `Why would you pick this when there's just been this movie?' They said, `A lot of people write about the same thing,'" she recalled.

A faculty member at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., McDonald made her Broadway debut in 2002 with An Almost Holy Picture, starring Kevin Bacon. The popular regional theater selection was produced at Center Stage in 1999.

Meanwhile, Coole Lady, a solo show about Irish writer Lady Gregory, written by former University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor Sam McCready and performed by his wife, Joan McCready, wraps up a two-week run at off-off-Broadway's Theatre 315, (315 W. 47th St., New York) on Saturday.

Reached in New York, Sam McCready said he wrote the play in 2002 as a 40th anniversary gift for his wife, an actress and retired Park School teacher. The couple have toured their native Ireland twice with the play, but the New York engagement, produced by Handcart Ensemble, is its American debut run.

"I have been really conscious of ... starting the show small and letting it build gradually, but this was such a surprise to be asked to come to New York that we grabbed the opportunity," the playwright said. For ticket information, call 212-868-4444.

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