The Catastrophist, an online production running through May 23 at peopleslight.org, is something very special. It’s a thought-provoking filmed play concerning family, mortality, and science — specifically, virology and epidemiology. Make sure you see it: A triumph for author Lauren Gunderson and actor William DeMeritt, it packs its 70 minutes with storytelling, discovery, sadness, and love.
It’s a big deal, too. Gunderson is the most-performed living playwright in America, and The Catastrophist is a bicoastal happening, coproduced by Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, Calif., and Round House Theatre in Washington, D.C., and streaming via 10 regional theater sites nationally, at last count. People’s Light has created audio-described and American Sign Language versions, provided free to all theaters presenting it.
For this play, Gunderson is writing the story of her husband, Nathan Wolfe, scientist, TED Talker, clear-eyed predictor of pandemics. As in real life, the character Nathan is a “futurist,” a “catastrophist” — “Give me a catastrophe and I’ll give you a plan.”
He’s one of the first people to see a virus “jump” from animals to human beings. He joins the fight against Ebola. He loves the mysteries of viruses. He specializes, he quips, in “enthusiasm for something that’s grim.”
Nathan knows he’s a character in a play by his wife. “What is this?” he erupts. “An interrogation? A confession?” He pushes back. When disease threatens his life, he cries out, “You can’t save me with a rewrite!”
As he suffers, he becomes a conduit for her emotions: “My wife would like you to know she is writing this because I can’t. … My wife would like you to know she is equal parts terrified and mad as hell.”
DeMeritt’s mobile face makes for great close-ups. He and director Jasson Minadakis maintain movement and tension. His beautiful voice is freighted with feeling as he recounts his upbringing in Detroit in a family where Judaism is “a massive part of everything,” and his love for his father and children. It’s probably the most humane depiction of a scientist I’ve ever seen.
The Catastrophist is also a displaced, projected conversation between the playwright and her husband about the nature of what each does. Nathan loves plays (especially musicals) yet thinks of them as “very nice, well-lit fraud.” As a scientist, he seeks what is always true. But he comes to see — this is so beautiful — that drama seeks a complementary, human truth. When he loses a beloved, he sits onstage and says: “The science of sorrow: There isn’t any.”
In a pandemic year of filmed, online productions, this one handles that situation especially well. It was filmed in an empty theater, and director of photography and editor Peter Ruocco creates a lovely visual rhythm. Each change of shot counts, from face to stage to empty seats.
There are well-chosen, sparing moments of TV magic. At high crises, we see Nathan split through a video camera viewfinder. Toward the end, a cinematic montage moved me to tears.
There couldn’t be a better moment for The Catastrophist, when we’ve been battling a virus, pondering mortality, and holding our families close. This production is a thing of precious beauty.
Coproduced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre and streaming on demand through May 23 at peopleslight.org. Tickets: $25.