In his program letter for Northlight Theatre's presentation of Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre's digital world premiere of “The Catastrophist,” artistic director B.J. Jones says he once asked playwright Lauren Gunderson, “How do artists respond to this astonishing pause in our lives and how do we reflect on it artistically?”
One of the most produced playwrights in the country — including “The Wickhams,” “Miss Bennet” and “The Book of Will” at Northlight — she decided on a subject that suited her experience and our times extremely well: her husband, Nathan Wolfe.
Happily for her, and us, he is a famous virologist, named one of “Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World” for his work tracking diseases like “simian foamy virus” in Cameroon and Ebola in West Africa. As Wolfe, beautifully played by William DeMeritt, explains in this 80-minute solo show, one of his specialties is zoonotic infections, those that can make the leap from animals to humans. And his goal is to predict pandemics in the hopes of preventing them.
But Gunderson is as interested in Wolfe's personal journey as in his professional accomplishments. Often infused with humor, his monologue covers childhood, getting his doctorate at Harvard (and explaining to his grandma that he wasn't a medical doctor), meeting Gunderson, and the birth of their two sons. He returns repeatedly to the profoundly loving relationship with his father, Charles, and the massive heart attacks that killed many of the men in his family. His father was devoutly Jewish and, although Wolfe says he's an atheist, he's also keenly aware of how Jewish traditions have shaped him.
There are also instances where life and work intersect in self-aggrandizing ways. For example, Wolfe describes ignoring the searing pain of kidney stones and leaving the emergency room for a lunch with a CDC official he warns about the seriousness of the Ebola outbreak. He also includes an attack on his critics for accusing him and his organization of mishandling the response to said outbreak, a section of his talk it's hard to evaluate without doing some background reading.
To someone, like me, who's not an expert on virology, the play's biology is more compelling than the biography. Wolfe's explanation of the differences between bacteria and viruses is captivating, as is his enthusiasm for the vastness of the viral world and the insignificance of humans' place on the tree of life. His attempts to come to grips with mortality, especially his father's and his own, are touching but less illuminating.
Not surprisingly, “The Catastrophist” is about style as well as substance, and Gunderson has several meta-theatrical tricks up her sleeve that turn conventions on their head. The main twist isn't revealed until near the end, but she inserts herself into the piece from the beginning, repeatedly having Wolfe tell us what he says she wants him to say (got that?). When he says near the beginning that theater is a “fraud,” he even has to backtrack and remind us who's really saying that.
At the same time, the play, sensitively directed by Jasson Minadakis, has been elegantly staged and filmed on the stage of the Marin Theatre, using multiple cameras and sometimes featuring multiple images of DeMerrit floating on the screen. Director of photography/editor Peter Ruocco does a fine job of capturing the nuances of the actor's expressions and keeping the emotional moments from becoming corny. Kudos also go to Wen-Ling Liao's striking lighting design and Chis Houston/Implied Music's evocative compositions and sound design, in which a beating heart plays a crucial part.
For no particular reason, I suspect that DeMeritt isn't all that much like the real Nathan Wolfe, but he does bring him appealingly to life for a lesson that's entertaining if not completely cohesive.