Anna Gunn Plays Alan Alda’s Marie Curie at the Geffen

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Anna Gunn and John de Lancie in "Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie"

She “was hailed as a real French heroine. She had won the Nobel Prize with her husband, she was teaching at the Sorbonne and even though she was Polish-born, she was accepted in France because she had studied and lived there. But when the scandal broke, suddenly the tables were turned and the ugly, xenophobic attack on her really came out.”

Anna Gunn is discussing the celebrated scientist Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867″“1934). Gunn is playing the Polish”“French physicist and chemist, famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity, in the premiere of Alan Alda’s Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, opening Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse.

Sklodowska Curie was the first female scientist to win worldwide acclaim.  She was the first person to be honored with two Nobel Prizes in two fields — physics and chemistry. (She shared the physics award with her husband and scientific working partner, Pierre Curie, along with Henri Becquerel who essentially discovered radioactivity.) The first female professor at the Sorbonne (University of Paris), she also was the first woman to be entombed on her own merits (in 1995) in the hallowed Paris Panthéon. Yet along with these illustrious moments came some devastating disappointments.

Leonard Kelly-Young and Anna Gunn

In his celebration of the astonishing mind of an extraordinary woman, actor/writer Alda has turned a fascination with the career, life and loves of this compelling and brilliant subject into his first full-length play. Dan Sullivan directs.

Alda’s play focuses on the years that loosely span Sklodowska Curie’s two Nobel Prizes, from 1898″”1911. It champions her indomitable spirit, exploring how she battled many kinds of adversity in the dogged pursuit of scientific discovery.

Tall and radiantly beautiful, Gunn skips her lunch break during the tech run to discuss the new play and its subject. Throughout her career, Gunn has effortlessly moved between television, film, and theater.  Her LA credits include Time Stands Still at the Geffen, also directed by Sullivan, the American premiere of Hysteria at the Mark Taper Forum directed by Phyllida Lloyd, Measure for Measure at the Ahmanson Theatre directed by Sir Peter Hall and many plays at Joe Stern’s Matrix Theatre.

Since 2008 Gunn has played Skyler White, opposite leading man Bryan Cranston, on the hit TV show Breaking Bad, which has gained considerable critical acclaim. She’s also known for playing Martha Bullock on HBO’s Deadwood and for 10 episodes of The Practice, as ADA Jean Ward. Her first starring role in a feature film was in 1995’s independent thriller, Without Evidence, alongside Angelina Jolie.

The illustrious life and career of a scientist.

Anna Gunn

Gunn admits she didn’t really know much about Marie Sklodowska Curie before she read Alda’s play — “just the basic facts we all learn at school. After I read the play, I asked Alan to recommend some further biographical research.” She goes on to marvel at the meticulous accuracy of Alda’s script. “I was astonished that everything he’s written in his play is based on things she actually experienced. I had no idea about the scandalous part of her life. I didn’t know she had dealt with depression ““ I really had very little idea about much of her personal life.”

The fifth and youngest child of well-known teachers BronisÅ‚awa Sklodowski and WÅ‚adysÅ‚aw SkÅ‚odowska, a Polish intellectual couple, she was born into a nation occupied and oppressed, yet she was taught to love freedom. A devoted sibling, she worked as a governess to help support her older sister, Bronya, so that the latter could study medicine in faraway Paris, even though that meant putting off her own journey there to study physics ““ the subject that fascinated her. She was a dedicated student who became an equally dedicated scientist, and then the wife and working partner of another scientist, Pierre Curie.

The pair, renowned as co-discoverers of both polonium (named for SkÅ‚odowska Curie’s fiercely loved native land) and radium, became Nobel laureates as a team. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1903, Marie and Pierre Curie suddenly became very famous. The Sorbonne gave Pierre a professorship and permitted him to establish his own laboratory, in which SkÅ‚odowska Curie became the director of research. Early widowhood (in 1906) devastated her but did not prevent her from carrying on their work. She accomplished amazing achievements during a lifetime abbreviated by the then largely unknown dangers of radiation exposure. She spent that lifetime holding true to the ideals she had shared with her husband.

Natacha Roi and Anna Gunn

“Pierre really was the love of her life,” Gunn says. “When he died, it was such an unexpected and tragic death that she went into a deep depression, and she felt that she couldn’t go on. Her two girls were still small. She was essentially sleepwalking through her days. But then she started teaching at the Sorbonne, taking over Pierre’s position, as the first woman to teach there.”

In 1911 a recent affair between SkÅ‚odowska Curie and physicist Paul Langevin, a mutual friend and former student of Pierre Curie, was exposed. Although Langevin — five years younger than Sklodowska Curie — was estranged from his wife Jeanne, Sklodowska Curie’s academic opponents leaped on the scandal. The tabloid press labeled her a home-wrecker. Leading the charge were two journalists who have been condensed into a single character in Alda’s play. She also was the object of false rumors that she was Jewish.

A compelling character study ““ becoming Marie Curie.

Becoming increasingly absorbed by the subject, Gunn grew to share Alda’s fascination. “Alan likes to say he fell in love with her over the four-year period of writing this play. He said that one of her quotes was along the lines of “˜First principle ““ never let yourself be beaten down by persons or events.’ She had such tenacity as a person. You look at what she endured throughout her life. I feel the same love, now. I’m just enraptured by her.”

Gunn says most summaries overlook the fact that the scientist, whose work was such a towering edifice, was tremendously human. “She lost her mother at a young age, and that was the first time she experienced a bout of profound depression. It hit her a few times during her life and she referred to it as “˜exhaustion’.

Anna Gunn

“She was infinitely curious. In the biographies you get a sense she had fairly quicksilver emotions. She was a richly and emotionally passionate woman ““ not the clinical, cold or dour woman that you might expect, working away in the lab boiling things down and doggedly pursuing results. Of course she did do all that, and had that myopic focus, but she was enormously fragile in a lot of ways. She was jealous, she was lustful and she was extremely angry at the fact that, being a woman, she was expected to fade into the background. Not to the extent that she was marching to the forefront of feminism, but she knew the landscape of that time period and she thought it was stupid. She was pretty candid and she also had a cutting, dry sense of humor.”

In preparing to play this real-life role, Gunn gained a lot of insight from the biography published in 1937 by Sklodowska Curie’s youngest daughter Eve, entitled Madame Curie. But the actress learned that barely any newsreel footage existed. She obtained only a few photographic resources with which to shape the character. “We found what we could on YouTube. There are a few grainy images of her in her lab, and there are some images of her on the boat, arriving in America. She was so stunned by the crowd there to greet her that she sat down in a deck chair. Or it may have been her stubbornness, an unwillingness to participate in the public “˜dog and pony show,’ that she just plunked herself down in a deck chair. Her two daughters are flanking her and they took photos of her. There is some video of her, in her cloche hat, looking rather bemused by the whole situation. But there’s really not a lot of material I could use to study her behavior.”

To portray Sklodowska Curie, Gunn adopts a Polish accent. “Not a Polish-French one,” she hastens to add, “That’d be too crazy and it would have taken twice as long.”

Dan Donohue and Anna Gunn

But is the attractive, blonde-haired actress also resigned to disappearing within a frumpy appearance? “Yeah,” Gunn’s response is swift and teamed with a wry smile. “But if you look at the biographies, at the pictures of her when she was young, she really was quite pretty. Her face looks completely different in the years before she lost Pierre and the years afterwards. It’s extraordinary to see the change literally marked on her face. The stress looks etched in her face. Her daughter wrote how the moment she got the news that he died, it was like an invisible veil had fallen across her face and she was never the same. There’s a landscape of pain in her eyes that got me thinking.”

Gunn was captivated by Curie’s delicate hands. “From what I could see in pictures, she had very graceful fingers, but the radium she was working with really took its toll on her hands, and that’s something that we weave into the play. People referred to her fingers looking like brittle and discolored sticks. Her passion for what she was doing, and also Pierre’s, was that you just do the work. And who knew at that time what the long-term effects might be?”

Curie was 67 when she died from aplastic anemia contracted from exposure to radiation. Before it slowly killed her, Curie wore a piece of radium in a locket around her neck and carried vials of radioactive isotopes in her skirt pockets, bringing them out to show during her lectures. She liked to gaze at them in the dark, she’d say, sitting back and watching their sparkling, luminous blue-green light.

John de Lancie and Anna Gunn

Naturally one hopes there might be some special lighting effects in Daniel Ionazzi’s lighting design to complement the theme of radiance?  While the play is grounded in its real-life biographical milieu, Gunn assures me there is leeway for a stylistic approach.

“The lighting, set and costume design are all gorgeous,” she remaks. “We have the black backdrop of the set wall, with openings for entrances, and there are also projections that tell the audience where we are.” A lot of story unfolds over a short amount of time, and the audience is taken from a lab to a garden to a train and so forth — the black and white projections assist as markers for the various locations.

“There’s a moving train effect, when she’s traveling, that’s just extraordinarily beautiful,” the actress says.

Encountering Alan Alda.

Alan Alda

Playwright Alda is best known for playing Hawkeye on TV’s M*A*S*H, and for his screenplays and direction of feature films, such as Betsy’s Wedding. Gunn says she was thrilled when she first met the renowned actor at rehearsal. “First of all, I got a voice message saying, “˜This is Alan Alda’ and I went “˜Oh my god!’ I really did watch M*A*S*H constantly, so I was very giggly about talking to him. He’s lovely and funny and he’s incredibly passionate.”

The first day of rehearsal saw Alda explaining the context of the Curies’ scientific breakthroughs to Gunn, to John de Lancie who plays Pierre, and to Dan Donohue who plays Paul Langevin. “He was explaining it all to us in a way that got me excited. He got me ““ a decidedly unscientific human being ““ really fascinated with the science of it all.

“He really has a passion for science and says if he hadn’t chosen to be an actor, he would have pursued a scientific career.”

Returning to the Geffen Playhouse.

Gunn says she adores working at the Geffen. “The second time around, it feels quite like home — familiar, comfortable and friendly.”  Of course this home-away-from-home was disrupted last week by the death of its founder and producing director Gil Cates.

“Gil Cates was a generous, kind, passionately creative man, and I feel tremendously lucky to have known him and worked for him,” Gunn says. “He welcomed me so warmly into the Geffen family three years ago when we premiered Donald Margulies’ play Time Stands Still, and he immediately impressed me with his devotion and love of the theater and the work that every single person in every capacity contributes to the making of a play. Just a few weeks ago, he welcomed me again into this wonderful new work, and he infused me with the confidence I greatly needed to take on a character as daunting and highly esteemed as Marie Curie. He was a rare and unique soul, and I will miss him.”

Anna Gunn and Alicia Silverstone in 2009 world premiere of Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still"

As a mom with two small daughters, Gunn finds that scheduling theater work around her other responsibilities can be taxing — but that it’s worth the effort.  “When I got to come here three years ago and work with Dan, that was the first full-length play I had done in nine years. That was thrilling for me. If I could work with one director for the rest of my life, it would be Dan Sullivan. He’s just brilliant. He knows how to tell story better than any director I’ve ever worked with. He knows how to talk to me in a language that I immediately understand. When it’s all good, he leaves you alone and knows that your instinct is taking you the right way. But when you are veering off the path, away from the character and storytelling, he knows exactly how to steer you back. He just has the right balanced approach.

The actress brings some of her own habits to the process, too. “I am a big music person, so I always make a playlist for my characters,” Gunn notes. “Alan also gave me a short piece of music by Debussy that reminded him of Marie, because there’s a turbulence to it. There’s a lyricism and a gracefulness to it, as well as the driving nature of the rhythm that seemed perfect.”

Music is not always considered a subject for scientific study, but as something that’s invisible to the eye and too intangible to touch, it does share a characteristic of subjects that often attracted Sklodowska Curie. In Gunn’s words, “what’s laid out at the beginning [of the play] is that she and Pierre had a fascination with looking into nature and closely observing the world, and finding out not only the things that we can see and touch, but those things that we cannot. That was what she wanted in her life, and she wasn’t going to let anything stop her ““ societal dictates, any of that. She really did live by her first principle.”

Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie by Alan Alda. Presented by Geffen Playhouse. Opens Nov. 9. Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 3 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm and 7 pm. (No performance on Nov. 24). Through December 11. Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue,  Westwood. 310-208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com.

***All Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie production photos by Michael Lamont


Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek