PITTSFIELD -- The first time we see La Marquise du Chatelet in WAM Theatre's imaginative, highly theatrical production of Lauren Gunderson's "Emilie: La Marquise du Chatalet Defends Her Life Tonight" at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage, she is flitting back and forth behind a series of gauze curtains like a moth in a desperate effort to reach a flame. Finally, she finds her way through an opening in one set of curtains, then another, then the last until, finally, there is nothing between her and the audience.
The flame that draws her is the flame of truth, of vindication, of completion to a life that ended in childbirth at the age of 42.
Born in 1706, La Marquise lived a remarkable life. Married at 19 to a wealthy general in the King's Army, Emilie (played by Kim Stauffer) had a keenly scientific mind that could keep pace with -- often outpace -- the keenest male minds of her time, chief among them Voltaire, with whom she had an enduring intellectual and sexual relationship that takes up much of Gunderson's play. Among her signal achievements were a translation of Newton's "Principia," which still stands as a model; her own physics textbook written in clear, concise accessible fashion; and her landmark work in mathematics..
Emilie's relationship with Voltaire was complex, often contradictory and, given Oliver Wadsworth's depiction, inexplicable. With an intellect as prodigious as his sexual appetite, Wadsworth's Voltaire. a man of the theater, casts himself as an insufferable clown and buffoon. It is not until the play's second act, as mortality begins to overtake Voltaire, that we begin to get a glimpse of the man behind the image.
Not so with Stauffer's exquisitely shaped Emilie, right from the get go -- strong, determined, inquisitive, relentlessly curious and probing; a woman caught between her understanding of the demands and expectations of a male-dominated society on the one hand and, on the other, the imperatives forced upon her by her own expectations and demands.
Stauffer and Wadsworth are abetted by three resourceful actors -- Brendan Cataldo as the other man in Emilie's life; Suzanne Ankrum as, chiefly, an aspect of Emilie and as Emilie's daughter; and Joan Coombs as the older women in Emilie's milieu.
But Gunderson's play be longs to Emile; with Stauffer burning with her own luminosity, so does this production.