Stages

Review: Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist Dramatizes Viruses and a Scientist’s Life

The scientist explains the wide world of viruses. Photo courtesy Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre.

The Catastrophist, by Lauren M. Gunderson, succeeds as a story that informs us about science and tears at our hearts about love, death and grieving. It soars from the scientific galaxy of viruses and disease to the personal euphoria of seeing a fetus’ hands (“two of them!”) in an ultrasound.

Gunderson, America’s most produced playwright (I and You; The Book of Will; Exit, Pursued by a Bear), is married to the catastrophist; she has written a  profoundly personal and scientifically thrilling story. The scientist, Nathan Wolfe (Ph.D. in virology, Harvard University) is an expert on diseases such as the deadly Ebola in West Africa. He spent years in Cameroon studying zoonotic infections (infections that pass from animals to humans).

Playing the catastrophist is William DeMeritt, who carefully explains the nature of germs, infections and the tree of life to us, with the aid of diagrams he scrawls on a transparent screen. Directed by Jasson Minadakis, the play, set in 2016, was commissioned by Marin Theatre Company and co-produced by Marin and the Round House Theatre. It’s being streamed for Chicago audiences by Northlight Theatre through March 31.

The Catastrophist is a filmed one-man play, structured in 20-some scenes with titles like Misconceptions About Viruses, Risk, Baby Boy and Shiva). The 80-minute production is made vibrant by video editing, projections and music. Wolfe turns from professor to son and husband when he describes his father’s illnesses and death and his delight at being pregnant. (“My wife would like me to point out that at this stage there is way less we than she involved. We are not pregnant. She is pregnant.”)

DeMeritt on stage. The Catastrophist was filmed in an empty theater. Photo courtesy Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre.

“I hate pandemics” he tells us, pointing out that all new pandemics come from animals. “Viruses are the most common lifeform,” he says. “People are nowhere near that interesting.” He describes his excitement at finding samples in Cameroon that proved that germs jumped from animal to human and then presenting his findings to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). When you’re an expert in a terrible thing, he says apologetically, your enthusiasm can come across as grim.

About half of the play is devoted to Wolfe’s scientific endeavors, where he is a dynamic lecturer. He becomes more thoughtful and occasionally somber as he describes his father’s illness and death and his own glimpse of mortality (heart disease affects all the men in his family when they’re in their 40s), but discovers the fear that parents live with from childbirth on—the fear for their children’s safety. Throughout these professional and personal scenes, DeMeritt is magnetic. If you didn’t know he was an actor, you would swear you were seeing the playwright’s husband on stage.

Wolfe’s intelligent explanations of viruses and pandemics are smartly handled and show Gunderson’s own interest in science as seen in some of her other works (Ada and the Engine, The Half Life of Marie Curie).

The creative team deserves many stars for making this one-man play a vivid and informative production. Photography and editing are by Peter Ruocco with lighting design by Wen-Ling Liao and music and sound design by Chris Houston.

The Catastrophist is available for on-demand viewing through March 31. Tickets are $30 and are on sale here.

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