It's worth accepting Horizon Theatre's invitation to the new dramedy Legacy of Light if only for the introduction to Marquise Émilie du Châtelet (Leigh Campbell-Taylor). History gives short shrift to the 18th-century French woman scientist who improved on at least one of Isaac Newton's ideas and helped nudge along humanity's understanding of the universe.
Former Atlantan Karen Zacarías, the playwright-in-residence at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, cuts back and forth between the dangerous liaisons of 18th-century France and the more mundane crises of contemporary New Jersey in Legacy of Light. At once scholarly and facile, the play proves more compelling in its spirited lectures than its emotional confrontations.
The present-day narrative begins when Olivia (Lane Carlock), an astrophysicist at the Isaac Newton Institute, shows her husband Peter (Robin Bloodworth) her breakthrough discovery: the barely discernable image of a distant planet in formation. It's no coincidence that the fuzzy intergalactic image of the "embryonic" planet evokes a fetal sonogram photo. Olivia's discovery rekindles her wish to have a child, despite her recent brush with ovarian cancer.
Legacy of Light juxtaposes discussions of cosmology and the laws of thermodynamics with the complications of modern-day fertility treatments as Olivia and Peter interview quirky young Millie (Kate Donadio) to be their surrogate mother. Like one of those manic pixie dream girls from Hollywood rom-coms, Millie sews her own clothes, uses the phrase "amazingly amazing" in excess, and makes Olivia question whether the older woman will feel a bond to a child who biologically belongs to another.
The safe, middle-class lives resemble shadows compared to the grand passions of Émilie and Voltaire (Allan Edwards), the famed wit, philosopher and, as the play reveals, author of the apocryphal tale of Newton and the apple tree. Former lovers and lifelong kindred spirits, Émilie and Voltaire hobnob with royalty, get caught up in duels, arrange marriages, risk exile, and face the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy in the 18th century.
Legacy of Light follows a similar time-shifting scheme as Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (currently being revived on Broadway), only substituting Voltaire and astrophysics for Byron and chaos theory. Zacarías' play might be more accessible, but it's also so tame and metaphorically on-the-nose it could be called Arcadia for Dummies. At least a half-dozen times, the playwright quotes the ironic catch phrase of Voltaire's most famous work, Candide: "Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." In his performance, Edwards comes across more like a loveable uncle than one of the founders of the Enlightenment.
Director Susan Reid gives the action an inconsistent tone. When Olivia addresses the Newton Institute's board about her planetary discovery, she sounds less like a scientist than a marketing executive making a sales pitch. And while the Voltaire-era scenes alternate between lusty comedy and scientific discovery, Campbell-Taylor invests such suggestive line-readings in a discussion about one failed experiment, that it's hard to tell what she's actually talking about. For the most part, the actress captures the Marquise's playful intellect and frustration with the era's social constraints on women.
Legacy of Light suggests a reverse version of the saying "generates more heat than light." Zacarías' play frequently illuminates dusty corners of history with lively imagery about the similarities between light and love. But the performances and conflicts tend to be cute rather than compelling, and Legacy of Light never heats up above room temperature.