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Einstein's gift shoud have been left to science, not the stage

Diana Forbes | Interrobang | Lifestyles | February 20th, 2006

What Einstein's Gift lacks in action-packed entertainment, it makes up with intellectual, thought provoking themes, moral lessons and high-impact emotion.

But first-time theatregoers be warned, the dramatics and minimal visuals may not be for everyone.

Currently on stage at the Grand Theatre, Einstein's Gift explores the friendship between legendary scientist Albert Einstein (Haysam Kadri) and his intellectual counterpart, Fritz J. Haber (Jerry Etienne). Set in Germany during the first half of the 20th century, Einstein narrates the life of Haber, a chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1919 for his discovery of atmospheric nitrogen, which led to the development of nitrogenous fertilizer.

In 2003, Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen was awarded the Governor Generals Award for Drama and the Canadian National Jewish Playwriting Competition for Einstein's Gift. The script was also nominated for the Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award for Outstanding New Play and Alberta Book Award.

Although both scientists are respectable in their own right, Einstein and Haber are contrasting characters. Einstein is unapologetically Jewish, while Haber renounces his Jewish faith to further his career. Einstein is committed to science, while Haber believes in applying its uses to the good of man. Einstein's home is where he feels accepted, while Haber is devoted to Germany, so much that he is blinded by the country's moral corruption in the 1930's that eventually led to the disasterous World War II.

After winning the Nobel Prize, Haber is asked to join the military and develop chemical weapons during the First World War. His discovery not only brutally kills some of Germany's own soldiers, but it also earns the disrespect and demise of his wife, fellow chemist Clara Immerwahr (Claire Jullien).

Kadri's portrayal of Einstein is subtle, yet authoritative. Even though the play centres on the life of Haber, Einstein is in every scene as a narrator, spectator or in discussion. Kadri masters everything from the scientists trademark hair to his intellectual silence, but it is not until the end of the play when Einstein develops the atomic bomb, and subsequently follows in Haber's science vs. morals footsteps, that the character is fully developed.

Etienne's role as Haber is confident and seamless, even though the character's development is portrayed over 30 years.

The set is very minimal, featuring only a movable desk, sliding wall and barren platform. Scenes that take place in a ballroom, a house and an office depend more on descriptive dialogue and viewers imagination than props.

2005 marked 100 years since Einstein published his Theory of Relativity, and in retrospect the same moral dilemmas Einstein and Haber poured over in their lifetimes more than half a century ago are not too far off those plaguing scientists today.

As Artistic Director Susan Ferley said in the production playbill, “‘gift' in German translates as ‘poison,'” and the discoveries of Einstein and Haber will forever been contrasted as both.

The play opened Friday, February 10 at the Grand. Tickets for the Tuesday, February 21 performance of Einstein's Gift are available at the Biz Booth for $18 for students or $24 for guests.

The production will be running until February 25.
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