There was more to Marie Curie’s life than Nobel Prizes.

Though, yes, those are notable. In 1903 the Polish physicist and chemist was the first woman to win the prestigious award, together with her husband, for their study of spontaneous radiation. And she became the first person to win two Nobels when she was awarded for her work in radioactivity in 1911.

But there was a richness and depth to Curie’s life many don’t realize, including her strong friendship with Hertha Ayerton, an esteemed engineer, mathematician and suffragette almost nobody knows about.

“The power of friendship, especially female friendship, can lift you up and rehabilitate you when you’re at your lowest, and help you stand on your own feet when you feel like you can’t anymore,” said Sarah Sheppard Shaver.

Shaver will direct the Theatreworks production of playwright Lauren Gunderson’s “The Half-Life of Marie Curie.” It opens Thursday at Ent Center for the Arts and runs through April 2.

When the two-person play begins, Curie (played by Prentiss Benjamin), a 44-year-old widow, is being devoured in the press after her yearslong affair with a married (but estranged from his wife) man is discovered. She’s won her Nobels, she has two children, and she is drowning from the unwanted attention. Ayerton (played by Leslie O’Carroll from Denver) comes to her rescue. She retrieves her from Paris and drives her to England to get out of the public eye and begin to heal.

Gunderson took the facts of Curie’s life and dramatized them.

“She’s lost, really vilified and almost forced out of France by the press,” Benjamin said. “She’s at one of the lowest moments of her life and feeling a kind of paralyzation because she’s not able to go to work, and work has always been the thing that defined her and where she has found purpose.”

The two women spend the summer of 1912 entrenched in conversation, laughter and arguments, as they discuss their shared love of science and uphill battle for respect and recognition in their fields; their late husbands; their children; the Royal Society, which awarded Ayerton a medal for her work, but wouldn’t admit her as a member; and the poisonous vial of radium Curie carries around with her.

“Gunderson is a whiz with snappy back-and-forth dialogue, such as this late-night whiskey-fueled exchange. Hertha: ‘You had a scandalous international love affair and I am a lonely widow now can we please discuss the sex.’ Marie: ‘You’re terrible, it was fabulous, leave me alone.’ And she turns the final scene — which is really just a laundry list of the women’s achievements from World War I and beyond — into a rapid-fire discussion-eulogy hybrid,” wrote critic Melissa Rose Bernardo for New York Stage Review in 2019.

Contact the writer: 636-0270

Contact the writer: 636-0270

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