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November 17, 2011

Creation's Birthday gets lost in space

For a play about astronomers, Creation’s Birthday seems strangely unable to find the center of its own universe. There is, to put it mildly, a lot going on in this show.

Creation’s Birthday tells the story of the astronomer Edwin Hubble and his attempts to uncover the secrets of the universe. His story, apparently, is a complicated one and seems to cover every topic of discussion that the early 20th century had to offer. These include issues as far-ranging as science, religion, science and religion, the suffragist movement, prohibition, the great depression, and WWI. It even squeezes in a comment or two about race relations. And while these issues were certainly relevant to Hubble’s life, I feel that by trying to include all of them, writer Hasan Padamsee leaves too many of them underdeveloped. But, having said that, director Rhiannon Cooper does a good job keeping this play from veering too far away from what it’s really about: science.

The story follows Hubble (Kein Onickel) on his journey from his family home in suburban Illinois all the way to the great 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson, California, where he completed his most well-known work. Along the way, we see Hubble clash with his father over education, with his sister over religion, with fellow astronomer Harlow Shapley—played by a pleasantly obnoxious Grant Johnson—over astronomy, and, finally, with the great Albert Einstein over the origins of our universe.

But, for a man who seemed to spend all of his time fighting, Onickel’s Hubble doesn’t seem to be much of a fighter. He remains the perfect gentleman throughout, showing the greatest humility in every dispute, no matter his opponent. He even manages to make Julia Weed’s Einstein look unreasonable, and that is some feat. Weed is over the top in just the right way as Einstein, portraying the physicist as those with a less than comprehensive understanding of his physics like to think of him: a gentle-hearted, slightly crazy old man.

But next to Hubble, the great pacifist of scientific discussion, Einstein looks more like those with a disagreeable opinion of his physics like to think of him: an irritable, grumpy, slightly crazy old man. As the audience is reminded more than once, Hubble is a man with his head in the stars, but even up there you’d expect him to show a little more anger than he does; on the occasions he does raise his voice, it seems to be more an act of convention than of passion. And so he remains strangely aloof throughout, never willing to step down from his heavenly pedestal and engage with his altogether more earthly adversaries.

At its core, however, Creation’s Birthday is a play about science, and it does an admirable job of dealing with this occasionally complicated content. The minimalist set, made up of nothing more than a brick wall as a backdrop and the occasional chair and table, was an excellent contrast to the complex subject matter and allowed the audience to focus their attention on the largely science-based dialogue. And one thing Onickel does bring to his portrayal of Hubble is a real enthusiasm for this science, an enthusiasm that spreads through the entire cast. Father George Lemaitre, a Belgian priest and scientist played by Jason Cooke, added a well-balanced religious perspective to proceedings, and the best scenes were those that dealt with the conflict between religion and science. It was a shame, then, that there weren’t more of these.

Instead, the play spent an unnecessarily large amount of time dealing with issues of secondary importance in Hubble’s life, the two main ones being war and sexism. If these topics had remained slightly more tacit, Creation’s Birthday would have had a far more powerful impact. Indeed, there were one or two excellent lines from the female characters that raised the issue of sexism without ever forcing the plot off track, but there were too many moments dedicated to these subplots when the play would’ve been better served by sticking to its scientific core. Perhaps Padamsee was reluctant to explore the scientific issues too deeply, confusing as they could sometimes be, but the play would really benefit from the focus this exploration would have brought to the plot.

Hubble’s great discovery was that the stars are running away from us. It’s a shame Creation’s Birthday had to run away from the stars as well.

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