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The Nuclear Option

The One-Man Show About Physicist Richard Feynman Needs More Energy

By John Barry | Posted 4/27/2005

QED By Peter Parnell

At the Fells Point Corner Theatre through May 8

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) is probably best known to the peanut gallery for flooding bookshelves with physics-for-dummies books like Six Easy Pieces and You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman. But in his spare time he also did things like win a Nobel Prize in 1965 for his theory of quantum electrodynamics. Hence QED, the cryptic title of Peter Parnell’s one-man play about the enigmatic genius who, despite his flair for self-promotion, seemed locked up in his own mental puzzles.

This isn’t the first time FPCT has looked at world-renowned nuclear physicists; two years ago, Victoria Danos’ Blue Eye of Robert Oppenheimer premiered during the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, featuring the Promethean scientist doing some serious moping about having developed the weapon that threatened to destroy the world.

Feynman, convincingly portrayed by Rich Espey, does a little complaining along those lines, but his attention span seems shorter than Oppenheimer’s. Parnell is less interested in ethical headbanging than in offering a portrait of a slightly nutty professor who’s preparing a lecture titled “What We Don’t Know.” As Feynman narrates his life, we also learn a little about him: for instance, that as he was putting together the bomb—which he describes as a high point in his career—his first wife, Arlene, was dying of tuberculosis. We also learn that he’s just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

We learn a lot, actually, but very little about the man himself. Feynman’s mind operates on four or five different tracks at once, and it seems that whenever one lane gets difficult to negotiate he uses his prodigious talents to shift gears. Since the play itself occurs while Feynman is being diagnosed with cancer, and preparing his lecture, and performing in a production of South Pacific, there’s plenty of material for diversion.

But should he be the subject of a one-man play to begin with? It’s one thing for Hal Holbrook to go around doing Mark Twain, but Feynman died 17 years ago. Maybe when dealing with media-savvy personalities there needs to be a longer statute of limitations. Because, while it is effective in its own way, QED comes off as just a re-creation. So why not just watch Feynman’s videotaped lectures?

Parnell could have confronted this difficulty by making more of an attempt to challenge Feynman’s well-known public persona. From the opening scene, Espey manages to incorporate the quirky mind-warping methodology that served Feynman so well. But by using the medium of an extended speech, Parnell leaves us stuck in Feynman’s lecture hall. Parnell also overdoes it with the phones. It seems that for Feynman to make contact with the outside world he needs the phone to ring, and for us to hear what people on the other end are saying he needs to use his answering machine. While Espey gamely negotiates these conversations, he interrupts his extended lecture each time he does it.

Espey, it’s no surprise, gives a strong performance, steering capably through two difficult acts as an outgoing but enigmatic character. Some actors might be tempted to inject a little artificial pathos into the play, but while Espey has a few soul-baring moments, he doesn’t try to push the play where it doesn’t want to go. In the end, Feynman is more of a puzzle than he was at the beginning, and that may be what makes QED most interesting. It leaves the viewer with the impression that Feynman has re-created himself as one of his own puzzles. One-track minds have their moments on the stage, but this five-track personality is, in his own endearing way, a little spooky.

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