By Les Jacobson
Albert Einstein advanced his two most famous theories, on special and general relativity, when he was a young man, and spent the rest of his life trying to find a unified theory that would encompass all the forces of nature.
In Northlight Theatre’s production of “Relativity,” at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie until June 18, Einstein is in the last phase of his career, comfortably ensconced at his home in Princeton, N.J., with just his fierce housekeeper Helen to keep him company and guard against intruders.
But one intruder worms her way into Einstein’s study. She is Margaret, a young woman claiming to be a newspaper reporter, who is actually there on a far more momentous personal mission, for which the stakes are very high: to reconcile his image as a great man with her suspicion that he is not a very good one.
Veteran Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum plays Einstein, and he is the centerpiece of this very fine production. At 93 he is, according to Actors Equity, the oldest
professional actor in America. And yet he carries the stage and the show for its entire, continuous 75-minute length with an ease, vigor, and professionalism that would do credit to someone dozens of years younger. Indeed, his performance, like Einstein’s early work, is miraculous.
“Relativity” was written by Mark St. Germain, and the award-winning theater, film, and children’s book author met recently with budding playwrights and other interested playgoers at Curt’s Café North in Evanston to discuss the Northlight production. He said the inspiration for the play came to him when he happened on the letters Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, wrote her husband about their daughter, Lieserl, who was born in 1902, a year before they got married. According to conventional wisdom Lieserl died at the age of 2 from scarlet fever, though people have speculated that she was given up for adoption. Einstein never acknowledged his daughter, which is a pivotal plot point in the play.
“I talked with experts, who had many different theories about Lieserl,” Mr. St. Germain said. “But what was interesting was that when Einstein was told there was ‘loose talk’ about Lieserl, he didn’t issue a denial but hired a private investigator.”
Einstein “did a wonderful job playing Einstein,” Mr. St. Germain said, meaning that he enjoyed acting out the public’s image of a great genius, “but he didn’t especially like people, especially some of his own family. He said every relationship was ‘a chain around my neck.’” This too is a central theme of the play.
“Relativity” was written on commission for the National New Play Network, which every year awards money to make new plays available to community theater groups around the country. It premiered last year in Sarasota, Fla., and has been revised and presented several times since then. “I can’t imagine the play going very far from this production,” Mr. St. Germain said. “I’d publish this one.”
Some of his previous plays have focused on such well-known figures as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, C.S. Lewis, and Sigmund Freud. “I like spending time doing the research and writing about brilliant, talented people,” he said.
Asked for advice on writing, he replied, “If you’re serious, be serious. You’ve gotta put your butt in a chair for one to two hours a day and write.”
Mr. Nussbaum has worked with the playwright before, in “Freud’s Last Session,” which was produced five years ago at the Mercury Theater in Chicago. When Mr. St. Germain sent him the script for “Relativity,” he enthusiastically signed on and suggested he contact Northlight’s Artistic Director B.J. Jones.
A Chicago theater legend, Mr. Nussbaum has been acting more than 60 years and has appeared in “hundreds of productions” – he has lost count, he said in an interview. He has won six Jeff awards and several lifetime achievement honors, including from the Sarah Siddons Society and Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Born in New York, Mr. Nussbaum moved with his family to Chicago when he was 2. He graduated from Von Steuben High School and served in the Signal Corps in World War II. “I sent the message, signed by Eisenhower, which announced the end of the war,” he recalled.
On returning to Chicago he started an exterminating business while acting in community theater on the side. “There weren’t many non-Equity theaters in Chicago then; it wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that local theater here began to take off.”
He has appeared in movies (such as “Field of Dreams,” “Men in Black,” and “Fatal Attraction”) and television shows (including “L.A. Law” and “The Chicago Code”), but said his favorite medium is still live theater. “The challenge is so much greater. It’s very exciting, an adrenaline rush, when I go out on stage.”
In deference to his age, he said, rehearsals are usually limited to “just” five hours. “I hibernate between shows on days when we do two.”
Evanston actress Ann Whitney, who plays the housekeeper Helen, said this is the first time she has worked with Mr. Nussbaum.
“I am so glad to have this opportunity,” she said. “He’s a sweet, fabulous man, and it’s amazing to watch him. He’s always ‘in the moment,’ his concentration never wavers, he’s always there, which means you’re always there with him. He’s just remarkable.”