A great woman deserves a great play. There may be few people more conscious of that fact than playwright and Decatur native Lauren Gunderson, who took on the monumental task of bringing the unconventional 18th century genius Émilie du Châtelet to life on the stage.
“She just sounded like a woman who deserved a really kick-ass play,” says Gunderson. “I am so much in this play, and so much of this play is in me.”
Written in 2009, “Émilie: The Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight” focuses on the extraordinary life of the spirited woman who was a pioneering mathematician, physicist, writer, courtesan, lover of Voltaire and translator of Isaac Newton. Gunderson says the play speaks to the difficulty women encounter trying to find acceptance and respect from male peers in the realms of art and science.
Gunderson first became interested in du Châtelet when a 2006 online article in the London Guardian caught her eye, and as she sought out more information, she began to recognize a sort of kindred spirit in du Châtelet, who struggled to make a mark in an intellectual world dominated by men.
“As a playwright, it’s still really hard for women,” says Gunderson. “The numbers just go against us.”
To get the details right, Gunderson read several biographies and worked closely with scholar and biographer Judith P. Zinsser. But Gunderson says she mostly wanted to write a play that felt lively and contemporary, not a stuffy or dusty period piece.
“I tried to deserve the subject and write something that was really alive,” she says. “It’s about this real woman who was so brilliant and really passionate. It’s her mind and her heart we know about. You’ll kind of forget this is a play set in the 1700s.”
The play takes place in the moments after du Châtelet’s death as she passes into another existential plane and looks back on her experiences in love, philosophy and science
Like du Châtelet, Gunderson says she’s always felt a strong fascination with science. She originally intended to major in physics when she arrived at Emory, but she soon discovered there weren’t many professors in the department who would allow her to turn in plays instead of term papers. She quickly changed her area of study to playwriting, her first love.
One of her first full-length plays, “Leap,” about the life and work of Sir Isaac Newtown, sought to meld her dual fascinations. The show was produced by Theatre Emory in 2004. Gunderson subsequently attended graduate school in playwriting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, eventually settling in San Francisco.
“Émilie” was Gunderson’s first major professional commission for the renowned South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, Calif. The LA Times hailed Gunderson as a playwright who “possesses an antic imagination that seeks to invent its own rules,” contending that the play “speaks as much to our time as to any preceding era.” When the Berkeley City Club did the play in 2012, the San Francisco Gate called it an “adept experiment in science and love.”
“This is a piece I fell in love with the moment I read it,” says actress Veronika Duerr, one of the five founding members of the Weird Sisters, which is producing the Atlanta premiere of “Emilie.” Duerr will play the lead role of du Châtelet. “We’re a five-way vote on everything, so I took it to the other women, and they all thought it was just as funny, smart, and sexy as I did. And it’s the perfect fit for us.”
It stands to reason that du Châtelet would be pleased her play found a home with Duerr and her group. The Weird Sisters is an Atlanta-based organization that gives professional opportunities to women in the theater, both in front of and behind the scenes. Like a lot of women in the theater, the five young actresses — Duerr, Kelly Criss Felten, Jaclyn Hofmann, Tiffany Porter, and Megan Rose-Houchins, all of them frequent cast members at Shakespeare Tavern — found themselves frustrated by the scarcity of substantive roles for women. The idea of creating a women’s theater group emerged during a series of late night, post-performance trips to Manuel’s Tavern.
“Every time there’s a Shakespeare play, there’s two women and 50 men,” says Duerr. “We just didn’t get the chance to act with each other. On top of that, we felt a real desire to produce and make something of our own.”
Gunderson’s work has had successful runs in Seattle, Minneapolis, Berkeley and has upcoming productions in Boston and Austin, but the playwright is especially thrilled that “Émilie” is arriving in her hometown with the Weird Sisters.
“I think often even great female characters like Hedda Gabbler or Ophelia and Gertrude in “Hamlet” — they’re surrounded by men,” says Gunderson, “and we only have the one female story out of ten. That’s just not the way the world works. I think what theater can do, what is its greatest gift to the world is giving us stories. Stories give us empathy, and empathy gives us understanding. That’s how you change the world.”
“Émilie: The Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight.” Presented by The Weird Sisters Theatre Project. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, Aug. 8-25. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St. Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222. www.auroratheatre.com