Mozart and Salieri. Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Angelina and Jennifer. History is littered with infamous rivalries. But in the titanic class of 17th-century brainiacs Isaac Newton and Dr. Robert Hooke, the latter clearly lost the battle, consigned to obscurity while the former is a household name.
With “Isaac’s Eye,” playwright Lucas Hnath explores the forces at work that made Newton a name immemorial and Hooke a rarely-noted footnote. Hooke’s accomplishments rivalled Newton’s in innovation. Hooke discovered cells. He figured out what makes elastic stretchy and how to make watches wind. He invented everything from microscopes to telescopes and laid the foundations for the modern sciences of geology, astronomy, physics and neuroscience. A generation older than Newton, Hooke’s work with the mysteries of gravity predated the upstart Isaac and his apocryphal apple by decades.
Forget whatever struggling drudgery you suffered through in mandatory science class. Opening in previews Sept. 2 at Writers’ Theatre’s Books on Vernon space, “Isaac’s Eye” is no fusty period piece.
“When I first started reading the script,” recalls Marc Grapey, the veteran actor cast as the brilliant Dr. Hooke, “I was like, ‘Oh, this is a historical drama, that doesn’t appeal to me.’ Then I started to realize it was written in an absolutely contemporary vernacular and I started to get really interested.
“It’s not this dry examination of science. It’s not even about science, although that part’s fascinating. It’s about competing generations and a clash of wills. I mean, those of us of a certain age have probably all been in the position of dealing with young whippersnappers biting at our heels.”
As a 20something Newton, Jeff Award-winning actor Jurgen Hooper plays the whippersnapper.
“The central questions Hnath asks are what’s more important — your career or your personal life?” says Hooper. “And what are you willing to do to get into the special club that we all want to be in, no matter whether we’re scientists or actors.
“I’ve been married for five and a half years now,” Jurgen continues, “and I’ve had to deal with that clash between the personal and the professional. I think it’s something everyone has to deal with.”
“To me, this is a story about egos and passion,” says director Michael Halberstam. “It’s about how one ultimately has to navigate that very delicate balance of ego and empathy. We all have ego as it relates to our job,” he says, “Sometimes I look around and I see, especially in politics, behavior that indicates to me that a lot of people are more interested in their legacy than they are in the successful articulation of their work. But I don’t want to throw stones. It’s all too easy to get distracted or preoccupied by what your place in history will be, and to forget the work you’re supposed to be doing right now.”
With “Isaac’s Eye,” Hnath has loaded the themes of ego vs. work and established pro vs. upstart with historical details that will blow your mind and/or make you shudder in horror. One example: Newton actually poked a needle through his eyeball in order to figure out how the gelatinous orb really worked. Another: Hooke’s anatomical experiments included blasting air down the throats of dogs until their lungs blew up. Factor in a secret sex diary (Hooke’s), Newton’s winsome love interest (Elizabeth Ledo) and a fellow with the plague (LaShawn Banks), and you’ve got a drama roiling with salaciousness as well as profundity.
“The profound thing the play asks is the question of what you do with your life,” says Grapey. “That’s a question that will always be here. Doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist or an actor or a ditch digger.”Tags: Glencoe’s Writers’ Theatre
Sept. 2 to Dec. 7 (previews through Sept. 9)
Writers Theatre, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe