Review: Discoveries aplenty in compelling ‘Catastrophist’

Nathan A. Wolfe (William DeMeritt) breaks down the biological world in Lauren Gunderson’s “The Catastrophist,” running through Feb. 28 on demand. (Marin Theatre Company photo)

In the fantastic production of “The Catastrophist,” it does not take long for virus hunter Nathan A. Wolfe to drop his bona fides on the audience.

It is 2016, and Wolfe is sharing how much he hates pandemics. Back in those days, many were not digging deep for stories about global epidemiology. But unfortunately, opinions on this topic four years later and beyond have evolved exponentially. As we approach the first and most likely last of horrific anniversaries since COVID-19 entered our conscious mind, and one year since the world as we knew it went poof, Wolfe’s hatred is now shared by the entire world in the most visceral of ways.

Lauren Gunderson’s play about her husband, directed with slick strokes by Marin Theatre Company’s artistic director Jason Minadakis, is filmed beautifully in a simple wash of stage light and compels throughout the 80 minutes it moves through an empty stage in an emptier theatre.

The co-production between Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley and Round House Theatre in Maryland, originally running online through Feb. 28 but now extended through July 25, brings forth a production that has oodles of depth and humanity, crafting moments that are rooted in both our present purgatory and searing humanity. The wonderful penning of the narrative is assisted mightily from a tour de force by William DeMeritt, who hits plenty of sweet notes as if he were playing cello in a Tchaikovsky nocturne.

For as much as Wolfe has done and accomplished in his career as a renowned virologist, one who can light up a Jeopardy board in the category “zoonotic infections,” it is what he cannot control that gives the piece its proverbial heartbeat. Born to a family who considered reaching the age of 40 to be deep senior citizen status, Wolfe lived in catastrophes by choice for his entire adult, professional life, plying his trade brilliantly, affirmed by a terrific TED talk. “Give me a catastrophe and I will give you a plan.”

But here’s the thing about plans – they can only go so far. All his mastery of dynamics such as eukaryotes, prokaryotes and micromorts have not taught him to ask the right questions at the doctor’s office when it comes to his own beating heart, knowing full well of the precarious lineage he comes from.  

In the Gunderson plays I have experienced, their power and compelling nature often comes with characters that can be quite ordinary, characters who are thrust into extraordinary, overwhelming circumstance. For a man such as Wolfe as portrayed by DeMeritt, he is in control professionally. But as the hits keep on coming and the personal discoveries become overwhelming, it is what Wolfe learns that drives the piece. What he learned was not found in a science lab, but it was just as important.

For as much as this play is about virology, science, and the brilliance of a researcher, it is about so much more. Who we are in life is much more important than what we do in order to live. Those deep connections that Wolfe discovers are the things that work in majestic ways.

It’s about the beauty and truth of how Judaism shaped his approach to love and spirituality. It’s about the pain of knowing so much professionally but fumbles personally when it really matters – things that drive a young man are not as important as when that man is older. For as much as Wolfe learned as a virologist, he was only beginning to learn from the wife who loves him, the children who need him and those who left him. As he bemoans another personal loss, he finds lovingly a silver lining in the devastation – “My friend died of the very thing I studied. But it sounds like he healed the world a little, or a lot. Good for him. Good for us all.”

Minadakis moves the piece at a delicious, crisp clip. The steadiness of the camera, the tight shots, the wide shots, all inform the metatheatricality of the piece’s style. Peter Ruocco’s camera work is easy and flowing. Wen-Ling Liao lights the piece subtly and effectively. And while sound designer Chris Houston’s soundscape does too much work in moments where the performer should keep total focus, there are enough warm touches and intensity that help to push the story forward.  

The infinite world of science and the dynamics of a catastrophe allows for a universe ripe for exploration in this play. What makes the work so interesting is that Gunderson herself, along with their two young boys, are the balm that Wolfe ultimately accepts as his legacy, his salvation.

The scientist who loves musicals and the playwright who loves science make one helluva team.

WHAT TO KNOW

Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre present “The Catastrophist”
Based on the Life and Work of Dr. Nathan Wolfe
Written by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Jason Minadakis
The Word: A play where science is the vehicle but discovery is the endgame.
Online through July 25
Tickets – $30
For tickets, visit https://www.marintheatre.org/

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