The chilly auditorium was dark. It was clear from the unusual silence of the students of St. Joseph’s College. Bursts of coughs were the only thing to disturb the stillness as we waited in the darkened hall for Tom Schuch to take the stage and begin the monologue.
From the sounds of a thunder storm outside, we are slowly brought into the cozy room in Einstein’s home at Princeton University while the stage lights brighten. As the guests of 67 year-old Einstein, we have a chance to join him in 1946. The stage is set perfectly, the chalkboard characteristic of every great physicist and mathematician, a chair and table, and of course, a desk covered with clutter. These pieces occupy the center of the stage, and Einstein moves with his flat feet and older person’s shuffle from one area to another as his focus shifts.
He is going to tell us about his life, especially the post-World War II period. He carries great guilt for contributing to the atomic bomb, a central theme of the performance. From hate mail he receives to his own nightmares about the effects of his work, there is a sinister undertone to the play that reflects Einstein’s controversial role in history.
As Einstein, Schuch produced near perfect moments of poignant reflection on his family life and his knowledge of his failures, including his absorption with his work, which kept him from his family a great deal.
The play could not have sustainably run on the bleaker moments of self-recrimination, or regret for the way science has been perverted to wreak havoc. I still wonder if it could have reached greater heights if Schuch could have gone into the darker emotions rather than operate so much on the rather artificial level of unambitious but reliable jokes like, “My doctor said an apple a day will keep him away, unless I cut my finger.”
Though filled with moments of comedy, one stood out. Einstein complains about his second wife, Elsa’s tendency to rearrange their furniture. When they traveled, he recounts ruefully, he was the only furniture available.
“The essence of drama is conflict,” said the writer Willard Simms after the performance. The conflict in Einstein was restricted to Einstein’s life and wholly internal, we just happened to be there to hear about it. The play was written by Simms 30 years ago, and has been performed with Tom Schuch as Einstein since 2001. It is the exploration of the conflict Einstein felt. Not falling prey to the trap of over-acting, Schuch speaks with enough regret and self-chastisement to make it believable that the man most of the world admires doubted his decisions just as much as we all do.
I had entered the auditorium sure that I would either love it or hate it, one-man shows are reliant almost entirely upon the actor’s skill. Had Schuch been any less likeable and skilled at playing Einstein, the monologue would have ceased to hold our interest.
At the same time, for anyone who had problems with the stage portrait, consider this. It is a line from the performance that holds true across every situation we might encounter, even plays that do not fully reach their potential to do something spectacular to the audience, “If I don’t live up to your expectations, remember they are your expectations, not mine.”