The sound of a heartbeat. A close-up of eyes. “All right, ok, what is this? Interrogation? A confession? …a play?…which would… Oh, it’s a play? Gotcha.” This ersatz Pirandello beginning is irritating as, to me, is every reference to an unseen writer/wife, curmudgeon.
Nathan (this is based on conversations with the playwright’s husband, Dr. Nathan Wolfe) tells us he has a PhD in virology from Harvard, something his nana disparaged as not being a real doctor. Raised “massively Jewish,” he was quoted Talmud: Whatever saves one life saves the world. The young man became fascinated with “shadow life” on earth, “What’s really going on,” which led him to a field of deep dives into the unseen before it manifests as deadly= virology.
One part National Geographic Lecture, one part TED Talk, one part first person mortality, the piece is additionally divided into titled scenes which break up continuity that might be achieved by bridging monologue. “Basically, I’m trying to find the next HIV before it gets out of the forest,” Dr. Wolfe explains. Not until Scene 5, in the year 2000, as a research fellow in Cameroon, then Scene 6 in at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, does his endeavor become clear, vivid, and dramatically interesting. In Georgia, a Eureka find propels him to the height of his profession.
Wolfe tells us he hates pandemics (the enemy). “There’s always something out there building capacity through the natural trial and error of any evolution, waiting for a moment of weakness in our systems, our sanitation, our civility…When you’re an expert in a terrible thing, enthusiasm for your work can seem grim…I’m a catastrophist, my wife just changed the title.”
All viruses jump from animals. We’re briefly educated about interlocking systems and how minor humans are in the realm of evolution. Train of thought then takes a side road to Wolfe’s father’s heart disease. I suspect family is intermittently brought in to show emotion balancing cold science. Transition is never smooth.
The virologist pivots his career. “Climate change is a hard sell. You’re trying to convince people to buy insurance before an event…Loss of life is only half the tragedy, loss of livelihood is how you can cut off an entire planet’s people from its own future…Nothing can save us from disaster but science, preparation, and luck.” Misconceptions about viruses are listed. The play, begun in 2016, is informative and eminently topical.
A wife, two children and career defamation follow. Then Wolfe suffers his own heart disease and potential loss. “You can’t script this,” he admonishes his playwright wife. Surgery is referred to as if floating above the operation, from a seat in the empty theater. “My wife would like you to know, she’s writing this because I can’t” starts a litany of “my wife would like you to know.” Big breath.
We see a photo of Wolfe as a child with his father, Gunderson seated in the theater, their children running through empty seats. Someone made it out the other side. (Photos of the real Dr. Wolfe in the field accompany credits.)
Actor William DeMeritt owns the stage. He handles difficult, jerky construction with skill, particularly when looking directly into the camera. That we get a sense of the scientist and the man are as much credit to him as director and playwright. This must’ve been like climbing a glass mountain.
The 80 minute monologue, filmed by three cameras in an otherwise empty theater is well served by physical point of view and excellent direction. Structure and lack of editing, however, do it no favor.
Photos Courtesy of Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre
The Marin Theatre Company presents
The Catastrophist by Lauren M. Gunderson
Based on the life and work of Dr. Nathan Wolfe
Directed by Jason Minadakis
Actor William DeMeritt
Director of Photography/Editor- Peter Rucco
“With the exception of Shakespeare, Gunderson has been the most produced playwright in the United States in recent years, according to a tally by American Theater magazine. Wolfe (Gunderson’s husband Dr. Nathan Wolfe) has his own claims to stardom, albeit of the more academic variety. He is an expert on plagues who warned presciently about the risks of a big pandemic years before the word became such an everyday, and despised, piece of vocabulary.” Thomas Fuller, The New York Times