“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” – Richard Feynman
New Ground Theatre’s upcoming show, QED, traces the many accomplishments of physicist Dr. Richard Feynman, including his formula for quantum electrodynamics (which gives this play its title) and his participation in the development of the atomic bomb.
Sound like just another science lecture? QED is anything but, with the eclectic Feynman’s accounts exposing NASA’s disregard of a warning that resulted in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, his passion for nature, his performance as a bongo drummer in the South Pacific, and his frequent trips to topless bars. The play is a portrait of the fascinating and inspiring life of Feynman, who cannot, despite his high level of genius, escape his own mortality when faced with a decision about his rapidly developing cancer. Tracing one day in 1986 in Feynman’s California office at the Institute of Technology, the audience discovers much about the physicist’s life through phone conversations, letters, and monologues.
Because 95 percent of on-stage time in QED features only the character of Feynman, it was essential to find an actor able to capture the physicist’s eccentric spirit and incomparable wit while also enduring almost two hours of solo stage time. Dan Coffey fit the part. A longtime acquaintance of New Ground’s driving force, Chris Jansen, Coffey was summoned from Oskaloosa, Iowa, to play the role. This involved weekend commutes, during which he resided in local hotels.
Director Jeff Coussens said the process of portraying the eccentric scientist began with Coffey’s research into Feynman’s writings and contributions to science. And the physicist’s life wasn’t all rocket science to the actor, who grew up in a family of scientists and also stars as the man behind Ask Dr. Science, an NPR radio show. Coffey achieved acclaim in the mid-’80s after his comic theatre troupe, Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre, became popular in Iowa City and San Francisco and was also developed into an occasional NPR segment. The comic group has been dubbed the “American Monty Python” by Newsweek and recently released a CD, The Most Stimulating Thing You Can Do With Your Head.
The idea of recounting both the inspiring and devastating events of an unusually brilliant scientist’s life is nothing new to theatre and movie audiences, who have seen the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof, the Russell Crowe film rendition of author Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind, and even Bertold Brecht’s representational study Galileo.
Actor and science buff Alan Alda (Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H) was intrigued by the unique physicist and suggested that his friend Peter Parnell, the adapter of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, develop a script to celebrate and portray Fenyman’s life. Parnell based the bio-drama on Feynman’s scientific developments and personal letters, and also Ralph Leighton’s biographical volume Tuva or Bust!
While the script does highlight Feynman’s scientific developments (including QED and other interactions involving light), QED also explores his personal relationships, interests, tastes, and eccentricities. Parnell ironically compares Feynman’s scientific genius with the one puzzle he cannot solve: his life-threatening cancer.
QED celebrates the extremes of a man who loved women but was devoted to the spirit of his dead wife, a man whose genius broke through barriers in science and who contributed much to the world through both his peculiar personality and his devotion to making new discoveries.
New Ground Theatre will present QED Thursdays through Sundays, January 6 through 16, at Rivermont Collegiate’s Becherer Hall, 1821 Sunset Drive, Bettendorf. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets or more information, visit (http://www.newgroundtheatre.org) or call (563)326-7529.