“The Catastrophist” Puts Prophecy under Microscope—Streaming Marin
Lauren Gunderson Illuminates Her Husband’s Life & Love
by Barry David Horwitz
Halfway into her new one-man show, beamed from Marin Theatre Company, wonderful playwright Lauren Gunderson chooses between the fascinating research of her virologist husband, Nathan Wolfe, and the history of their young family—a tricky choice.
I enjoyed most of the 80 minute run—Wolfe’s dangerous voyages testify to the scientist’s humility, learning, and bravado. His inspiring traits fit well in this wife’s tribute to her admirable husband and his groundbreaking research.
One path leads to a welcome understanding of what a virus is, how it lives in tandem with other living things, and how it crosses animal barriers to find a home in us. The other path leads to revelations about Nathan’s father and personal, family memoir.
There’s a generational story here—but to tell it all would require a full-length, fully-produced Gunderson play. In this solo version, with his wife’s voice in his ear, Wolfe speaks with her words.
Sensitive William DeMeritt plays Wolfe, the research virologist who travels the world looking for Ebola, HIV, and other dangerous viruses. DeMeritt takes us on an exquisite voyage into the vast and mysterious viral world with grace and charisma. I could listen to him all night—so long as he is sparking parallels between his daring exploration and inherited Jewish morality.
When we begin to leave science behind, ominous heartbeats form a crescendo as DeMeritt shows how attuned Nathan is to others’ beating hearts. Wolfe travels to Africa and Asia to find viruses—walking into the storm. He wants to save us, to heal us all—aspiring to his father’s Jewish teachings of “Healing the World.” Even healing one person counts. As a kid, he collected massive research to get his Dad to quit smoking—his first scientific success.
DeMeritt’s expressive features capture his feelings about his repeated trips to Africa, his research team, and his achievements. When he uses a clear plastic board to explain viruses, I am enchanted—his friendly demeanor draws us into his laboratory. I would like to hear more about his adventures and discoveries.
When he explains a “micromort” or Simian Foaming Virus, I yearn for more from a scientist out in the field, whose inner life propels him to search painstakingly for answers.
The short blackout scenes and sudden shifts of focus shock us, but they also offer fresh takes on his personal mission, his selflessness, and his new family. Although many scenes could be more tightly connected, Gunderson is developing a new form of biographical drama in front of us.
When Wolfe delves further into his life, playwright Gunderson reveals severe family health issues, moments of horror, and the birth of their two boys. The turn to memoir takes us away from his scientific sojourns to more sentimental and personal elements that contrast with his dedication to knowledge.
“The Catastrophist” brings us closer to the fragility of our lives. Where are we in connection to virus life? How do they differ from microbes and humans? Is there a clue in our common ocean origins? I’m hoping for a follow-up play from the always intriguing Lauren Gunderson.
“The Catastrophist” by Lauren Gunderson, based on the life and work of Dr. Nathan Wolfe, directed by Jasson Minadakis, co-produced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre—Streaming at MarinTheatreCompany.org – to July 25, 2021
Cast: William DeMeritt