There's a historic tension between science and religion -- at least between science and literalistic, primitive religion -- and it's become especially virulent over the last decade or so. The schism has never made much sense: Some religious people find that scientific advances only feed their sense of wonder and gratitude; some scientists spend their days unraveling the intricacies of the universe and their evenings in meditation or prayer. For me, Stephen Jay Gould put the matter to rest with his lucid explanation that science and religion constituted two different and distinct approaches to knowledge and that each should respect the other.
But that isn't happening. Some practitioners of the world's major religions -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam -- are becoming more and more militant, attempting to subjugate women, marginalize homosexuals and forbid scientific advances, even advocating violence, all in the service of faith. Among the scientists who have chosen to fight back, perhaps the most vocal is Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, who recently said he believed that scientists would eventually "discover the final theory of everything," and that this, coupled with the theory of evolution, "will furnish a totally satisfying naturalistic explanation for the existence of the universe and everything that's in it...and deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions."
Into this discussion steps playwright Jamie Pachino, whose Splitting Infinity is now at OpenStage Theatre. The protagonist is Leigh Sangold, a Nobel-winning physicist who has devoted her life to the intoxicating joys of scientific discovery. Leigh's closest and oldest friend is a rabbi, Saul Lieberman. When they were in college, they almost fell in love, but there was no reconciling his down-to-earth humanism and her devotion to knowledge and abstraction. As the play opens, Leigh is celebrating her 49th birthday with Robbie, the 24-year-old post-doc with whom she's having an affair. He comes up with the idea that they should work together and use physics to disprove the existence of God. Later, we learn the reason for his bitterness against the deity: His Christian Scientist mother allowed his younger brother to die for want of surgery. Because there's no possibility of getting funding from established scientific institutions, Leigh and Robbie decide to redefine their concept: They'll say they're attempting to prove God's existence and apply to a Christian organization for grants.
It's hard to imagine a Nobel laureate seriously taking on a project this unscientific; perhaps Pachino is suggesting that Leigh is past her prime and has lost her intellectual acumen. But why would Robbie -- whom we've been assured is a brilliant young scientist -- foment this lunatic idea? In the real world of academia, promising students do many things to please their mentors, whether the motivation is genuine admiration or professional advancement, but most of them are very protective of their scientific careers.
Rabbi Lieberman is incensed by Leigh's activities. He knows she doesn't believe in God and feels she's desecrating everything he believes in. But when Robbie dies in a senseless accident, Leigh turns to Saul in a frenzy of grief and rage, and we realize she's far less secure in her atheism than she's pretended to be -- not that she actually believes. She just wishes she did.
Although there's much discussion of science and philosophy in Splitting Infinity, the focus is more on Leigh's search for identity and her baffled, unfulfillable love for Saul. The two talk a lot about their feelings and their relationship; most of their dialogue is articulate and intelligent, some of it is beautiful. But after a while, you just want them to get on with whatever they're going to get on with -- whether that's coming together or stumbling apart.
There are some good performances, particularly by Jeremy Make, whose Robbie manages to be respectful but never obsequious, and by J. Brooke McQueen as a brightly energetic and idealistic young Leigh, in love with the stars. Charlie Ferrie's Saul is very convincing, and so is Dan Tschirhart's young Saul, though the role is a little irritating as written -- too much exhortation, too many reproaches. The casting of Judith Allen as Leigh is problematic: Allen is a good actress -- funny, naturalistic and sometimes moving -- but not convincing as a scientist of Nobel-winning stature.
While the playwright leaves the big questions open, director Deborah Marie Hlinka seems to have made up her mind that there is a God, or at least something sort of fuzzy and big and important out there, because she's supplied some soppy music and a disembodied voice speaking mystical, significance-laden phrases. Nonetheless, it's exciting that OpenStage is tackling new work this challenging. And somewhere inside Pachino's thicket of words, there's a fascinating play with believable characters, a thoughtful piece that refuses to accept a pat ending.
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