Two women scientists centuries apart in Synchronicity Theatre's 'Legacy of Light'

legacy of light synchronicity
Haliya Roberts and Reese Smith in "Legacy of Light." (Photo courtesy of Casey Gardner Ford)

Until the 20th century, we knew of few women scientists. While science touches the lives of everyone on earth, science historically was not open or accessible to women. “Legacy of Light” tells the story of two women scientists from different worlds: one from 18th century France, and the other from modern-day New Jersey. The play is on stage at Synchronicity Theatre through April 10. Director Rachel May joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom along with two of the actors in the show, Sarah Elizabeth Wallis and Haliya Roberts.

Interview highlights:

Two stories of womanhood, connected across centuries:

“We have two worlds,” said May, “The 18th-century French world with Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet, who were lovers in the 1700s. Émilie is one of our very early scientists, women scientists. And then we ricochet back between that and a modern-day couple, Olivia and Peter, who are trying to have a baby and are having some challenges, and actually decide to go the route of surrogacy. And so these two worlds are sort of orbiting around each other throughout the play, and then with some delightful surprises, start to crash land into each other,” said May.

Revealing a brilliant, under-recognized scientist through theater:

“[Du Châtelet] was so far ahead of her time,” said Wallis. “A lot of her work was actually … co-published with Voltaire under his name, but then he would dedicate the work to her, and it wasn’t until after her death that it came to light that she had actually been doing all of these scientific experiments and incredible calculus, to do things like figure out what is the pull of gravity on Saturn and lay the groundwork for what Einstein eventually discovered as E = mc².”

Olivia, the play’s fictional 21st-century counterpart to the real-life Emilie:

“She is a highly successful astrophysicist in a field where there aren’t a lot of people that look like her, and she is on the cusp of great discovery here. But at the same time, she understands mortality in a very real way. So she has survived cancer. She’s also recently had a near-death experience, and it’s brought about a certain clarity to her that she wants to be a mother,” said Roberts. “There’s a line in the show where she says, ‘There’s more than one way to make a planet.’ Well, there’s also more than one way to create your family.” 

“[Women] are kind of split in half, you know, into our career that we pour so much into, and still the desires for family and motherhood,” Roberts said. “Olivia’s story gives me such hope that you can have both, with the support she has from Peter, and then also with her open outlook on taking a different path. It doesn’t have to look like what you’ve seen in the past, or what society says it’s supposed to look like as far as your journey to motherhood, but she ends up with everything. She ends up with her planet and with her baby.”

“Legacy of Light” is on stage at Synchronicity Theatre now through April 10. Tickets and more information are available here