Student writes scientific play
It is a rare thing for a musical production to successfully educate and entertain an audience simultaneously, but during the Senior Thesis Festival this week, Jessie Field's '13 creation Always, Rachel did just that. Audiences had the opportunity to see Field's production twice last week in the carefully staged Merrick Theater in the Spingold Theater Center. A project that Field has been working on for almost three years, Always, Rachel told the story of the life of environmentalist and writer Rachel Carson. The story covered her life from her college years until her death.
Field's musical began with a lively song-and-dance number about DDT, the U.S. government's newest miracle chemical that brought the promise of plentiful, controlled crops at the end of the 1940s. A live orchestra, situated in Merrick's cleverly placed balcony, loomed above the audience and heartily played the production's original score, which was composed by Field's brother and Brandeis alum, Jared Field '11.
Always, Rachel took an inclusive and historically mindful look at Carson's life, endearing her to audiences as the production presented her as a student, a professional, a lover, a mother and a fearless fighter for what she knew to be right. But the aspect of the execution of Always, Rachel that really made it a dynamic project is that, while Carson's life and legacy was its main focus, the production allowed room for several subplots and other characters who kept the almost three-hour show entertaining. Dramatic, serious scenes in which Carson went head-to-head with government officials, college professors and dishonest doctors were broken up by comical musical numbers among the minor characters.
The story of Carson's growing career is told through split perspectives, between which the script and characters alternate seamlessly: Alia Goldfarb '13 plays the college-age Rachel while Jamie Perutz '13 plays the older-aged Carson. Field's staging of the parallel worlds of the two Carson characters made the distinction between them quite clear from the beginning-readings of letters between each Carson and her acquaintances at these different times in her life, as well as the introduction of the two as other characters clearly called them by name, ensured that the audience did not get confused. Both Goldfarb and Perutz portrayed their characters so that they were not dramatically different, rather, each of their versions of Carson shared a studied tenacity and a characteristic gentleness of demeanor, but their age difference was made clear as each character responded to situations with other characters. Goldfarb seemed much younger as her Carson dealt with assertive college professors and started to forge a relationship with her high-strung book agent Marie (Sarah Pace '13). Perutz made her version of Carson seem more mature as she banded with Marie to stand up to readings of negative reviews of her book, and toward the end of the play as she faced her doctors with a headstrong perseverance and sense of self-preservation that comes with age.
Perhaps one of my favorite scenes in the play came toward the end, when Carson and her lover and long-time friend, Dorothy Freedman (Briana Schiff '14), shared a tender moment. In this way, Field's adaptation of Carson's life was more interesting and endearing, as audiences were first drawn in by learning about Carson's audacious career but became invested in the production when they became familiar with Carson's relatable personal life. Balancing her writing and activism pursuits with her most intimate and family relationships proved difficult for Carson in real life, and the dynamic between Freedman and Carson in her more mature years was wonderfully enacted by Schiff and Perutz.
At the end of the musical, as Carson finally published her novel Silent Spring, a culmination of her interdisciplinary lifelong work, she was diagnosed with cancer and forced into an extended hospital stay. The final moment that Schiff and Perutz share shows Carson pleading with Freedman to let her have one final walk outside before she returns home from the hospital. The chemistry between the two actors is so tender in this scene, as Schiff lovingly gives in to Perutz' requests, that the audience seemed to sadden, as they had become attached to the two and wanted to see Carson and Freedman's life together unimpeded by disease.
I have never seen a production quite like Always, Rachel-one that fuses science, music and history-and while it was almost three hours long, I was engaged with the story and the characters for the entire time. Field's excellent writing and directing and the high-energy performances from the cast made sure that no audience member dozed off.
Perhaps Field puts it best, as she wrote sentimentally in the show's program: "Rachel's life was filled with battles and obstacles, hardships and loss, crushing failure and soaring success; but underneath it all was a love, simple and strong, that meant everything. Always."