Finally, A Reason To Stay Awake in 10-250
Richard Feynman Comes to Life in QEDBy Amandeep Loomba
Jan. 30, 7 p.m.
Written by Peter Parnell
Directed by Jon Lipsky
Starring Jeremiah Kissel, Jordan Dann
When someone asks you which famous scientist from the past you’d like to have dinner with, how do you respond? Would it be Albert Einstein, who rose from humble beginnings to change the face of physics? Or would it be Richard Feynman, who’d probably take you out to a strip club afterward?
Feynman’s utterly remarkable persona is a large part of what makes QED, a play about his life, so engaging, and what packed 10-250 to capacity last Thursday night for a staged reading of the play. As Alan Alda pointed out after having played Feynman in the original run of the play, “Feynman’s personality is so strong that if he was played by a three-foot-high dwarf of the opposite sex, you would still think it was Feynman up there.”
Which is not to say that Jeremiah Kissel’s performance and Jon Lipsky’s direction of QED in 10-250 were irrelevant or not engaging. On the contrary, they both brought the perfect atmosphere to a story that covers an astonishing amount of territory and myriad themes that seem at first to be as unorganized and shuffled about as the mess of papers on Feynman’s desk.
But it’s when Feynman’s papers are falling to the ground and scattering most haphazardly that he’s most in his element. QED’s elegance lies primarily in its structure. Mirroring the theories that describe the subatomic world in which Feynman worked, the play follows an indefinite, probabilistic route. And it is greatly to the actor’s credit that he so convincingly handles such a breadth of thematic material without a strict chronology or order.
Much of the play’s material is derived from a recent collection of Feynman’s talks and lectures, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. It is this pleasure that drives Feynman in all his endeavors, and it is what he constantly falls back on. The pursuit ranges from the blind, giddy excitement for discovery that led to the development of the atomic bomb (and the regret that followed) to the grand experiment of death and its unknown results. Asking his doctor to bring him out of anesthesia if he begins to slip away during an operation, Feynman says, “If I’m gonna die, I wanna be there when I do.” Just to see what it’s all about, I guess.
For Feynman, there was no need for formalism or distinctions between fields of academia. There was no reason not to try to figure out why a Frisbee wobbled when thrown. There was no reason not to devote time to learning how to draw. And there was no reason not to practice by sketching the ladies dancing in the local strip club.
Feynman’s freeform thinking and his complete ignorance of any and all boundaries are precisely why his life works as well on stage as it does in memoirs or even textbooks. In the world of QED, art and science are not two sides of the same coin, but two ways of pursuing the same dream of exploration.
Wandering between worlds allowed Feynman to make his most important contributions and discoveries. For example, Feynman pointed out that the real problem that caused the Challenger tragedy was not its construction, but a breakdown in communication between levels in the management hierarchy at NASA. Feynman’s creativity allowed him to approach the problems of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) with a novel geometric model that allowed for “sweeping [the infinities] under the rug.”
QED excellently covers all of these ideas. But it is even better at exhibiting the vitality that came out of Feynman’s range of interests. The character of Miriam Field, played charmingly by Jordan Dann, displays this vitality in its purest form. It is not entirely obvious whether her interests lie in the world of gluons and quarks or in Feynman himself.
One of the play’s most memorable moments features Feynman describing how a flower only becomes more beautiful as you learn about the science behind it. For me, it brought to mind a statement made by the Victorian thinker John Ruskin, who said, “Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies, for instance.” When I think about it now, I realize that Feynman couldn’t disagree more with that statement. Maybe in a smoke-filled club in heaven, the two of them are sharing a beer talking about it right now.