The City Theater in Pittsburgh kicked off its virtual spring season on March 15 with the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s “The Catastrophist,” a California-based playwright. The time-jumping one-man show shows the life and work of virologist Nathan Wolfe, Gunderson’s husband and one of Time’s 100 most influential people, for his work in tracking down Ebola and swine flu. The show touches on topics related to science and the Jewish faith, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the concept of the Tikkun Olam.
On a call from San Francisco, Gunderson told The Chronicle that like any other multidimensional and vulnerable figure, she was peeling apart the layers of her husband’s life in her pieces.
“Having these conversations like I don’t know him was really great, and it was a great part of a marriage that was sought – was it? – 10 years, ”said Gunderson. “A lot of it was the nuances I hadn’t worked out before: ‘How does it feel to be in a lab and see results like this happen?'”
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Wolfe fought viruses and planned international disasters long before the coronavirus, both in the laboratory and around the world, sometimes in places as distant as Cameroon. Gunderson also learned a lot about Wolfe through his Jewish family, particularly his father Chuck, who died shortly before the couple’s first child was born.
The idea of cleaning up the world, or Tikkun Olam, first came from Chuck, “but Nathan embraced it on his way to becoming a scientist,” said Gunderson.
The intimacy of the piece, the first draft of which Gunderson completed last summer, reflects the pandemic in which the facades of everyday life have collapsed.
However, there are also lighter moments.
“There was the joke too [Wolfe’s] Grandmother when he met Dr. Nathan Wolfe became [and she said]”Yes, I’ll wait for you to become a real doctor,” laughed Gunderson. “Of course they are incredibly proud of him, but you have to be kidding.”
Wolfe saw sketches of the show early on, but was impressed by actor William DeMeritt’s portrayal of his life. He was particularly touched by how DeMeritt, who is also Jewish, painted a portrait of contemporary Judaism and Jewish thought that was miles away from the “Fiddler on the Roof” stereotype, Gunderson said.
“I wrote what I saw and I knew it was true and [Wolfe] I felt very impressed and that’s the biggest compliment I could get from him, ”she said. “I know I got the science right. But he said: “I would never have written the piece like that. I am pleasantly surprised. ‘”
City Theater executive director James McNeel said he looks forward to hosting virtual performances for the crowds that formerly flocked to the Bingham Street Theater on Pittsburgh’s south side.
“The artistic staff has put together a collection of original content with local artists as well as partnerships with colleagues from across the country,” said McNeel. “While nothing can replace the feeling of performing live, this is the safe and responsible approach to ensuring the pandemic is over soon.”
“The Catastrophist” can be streamed until April 4th.
The City Theater also offers the spring season the film adaptation of the play “Room”, which is based on the writings of Virginia Woolf, and “Homegrown Stories 2”, in which five local playwrights are asked to create 10-minute plays based on react to the current moment, ”According to a spokesman for the city theater. The theater will round off its spring program with short digital solo vocal performances, known as the “spotlight”. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.