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STAGE REVIEW

Physics, philosophy intersect in ‘Legacy’

Diego Arciniegas (left), Sarah Newhouse, and Jonathan Popp in Karen Zacarias’s “Legacy of Light,’’ which is receiving its New England premiere at the Lyric Stage Company. Diego Arciniegas (left), Sarah Newhouse, and Jonathan Popp in Karen Zacarias’s “Legacy of Light,’’ which is receiving its New England premiere at the Lyric Stage Company. (Lyric Stage Company)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / February 17, 2010

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Two time periods, two pregnancies, and the 18th-century French writer and philosopher Voltaire collide with Newton’s Laws of Motion in “Legacy of Light.’’

Karen Zacarias’s thoughtful comedy, receiving its New England premiere at the Lyric Stage Company, reaches for a Stoppard-like synthesis of love-story-meets-science. Although that goal exceeds her grasp, the journey is still engaging.

“Legacy of Light’’ travels back and forth in time with two story lines that unexpectedly intersect. The play opens in France during the Age of Enlightenment, as we meet the real-life woman scientist and mathematician Èmilie du Châtelet (Sarah Newhouse) and her lovers, the young Saint-Lambert (Jonathan Popp) and the older Voltaire (Diego Arciniegas). When du Châtelet, at age 42, discovers she’s pregnant by Saint-Lambert, she fears childbirth will kill her and races to complete her research, translating and clarifying some of Newton’s theories and proposing her own about the properties of light.

Meanwhile, in contemporary New Jersey, astrophysicist Olivia (Susanne Nitter) and her schoolteacher husband, Peter (Allan Mayo Jr.), decide to hire a surrogate, Millie (Rosalie Norris), to have the baby they can’t conceive. But Olivia’s dedication to her other “child,’’ a planet she’s discovered in the process of formation, threatens to derail her ability to commit to a baby.

Zacarias explores the challenge confronting all three women as they struggle to understand their places in the world and their effort to do “something that matters.’’ They wrestle with balancing their intellectual and emotional lives, worry they can’t have it all, and weigh what they must sacrifice in one area to achieve something in another. But Zacarias’s characters veer into obviousness when they repeatedly refer to variations on Newton’s Laws of Motion as they contemplate the change caused by the arrival of a new baby, both in 18th-century France and 21st-century New Jersey.

The playwright sends the ghosts of du Châtelet and Voltaire into the 21st century just as Olivia is panicking about parenthood and Millie is about to deliver. This leap across time and space might strain credibility, but Zacarias has carefully planted clues to the characters’ connections and uses actors doubling up in roles effectively.

Much of the production’s success comes from Lois Roach’s sleek direction and the performances of Arciniegas, who brings an endearing and playful charm to the egocentric Voltaire, and Newhouse, who makes us ache for du Châtelet as she pragmatically manipulates her children’s future.

Before Voltaire and du Châtelet appear in the contemporary world, they spend a few minutes explaining themselves to the audience in a moment of self-reflection that gives them a complexity and nuance missing in their contemporary counterparts. Even costume designer Charles Schoonmaker reveals his partiality for the 18th-century characters, dressing the French in a fabulous collection of gowns, breeches, and jackets, while the 21st-century people appear fairly drab in comparison.

Set designer Janie E. Howland creates an airy, ethereal set with a doorway, a chaise, and an apple tree as the only anchors to reality, both in France and New Jersey, while lighting designer Scott Clyve projects a colorful combination of stars and galaxies as a backdrop to the action.

“Legacy of Light’’ offers a seminar’s worth of science and Enlightenment ideals, but Zacarias is most successful when her characters leave math and science behind and grapple with human emotions. Du Châtelet’s discoveries are fascinating, but the play’s payoff comes with the heartfelt understanding that “everything changes, but nothing is lost.’’

LEGACY OF LIGHT Play by Karen Zacarias

Directed by: Lois Roach. Set, Janie E. Howland. Lights, Scott Clyve. Costumes, Charles Schoonmaker. Sound, Arshan Gailus.

At: Lyric Stage Company, through March 13. Tickets: $25-$50. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com