'QED' spends breezy day with mind of a scientist

Long before Bill Nye the Science Guy hit the airwaves, Richard Feynman was the people's scientist. A shaggy-haired polymath whose interests ranged from drawing to drumming to dreaming of Tuva — that distant Russian republic renowned for its throat singers — Feynman led a life that would be catnip to any dramatist. But Peter Parnell's "QED" uses an underlying structure as simplistic and outmoded as the Bohr model of the atom in attempting to capture its subject.

Originally scripted by Parnell at Alan Alda's request as a vehicle for the ingratiating star, "QED" gets its professional Chicago premiere with Theatre4humanity in association with Collaboraction under Maureen Payne-Hahner's direction — this after a maiden voyage two years ago as part of Northwestern University's ETOPiA (Engineering Transdisciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts), a program whose admirable goal is fostering dialogue via the arts about science and technology.

The Feynman we meet in Parnell's play would certainly approve of the theatrical link. In addition to plotting a trip to Tuva, complaining about the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger disaster (Feynman helped demonstrate the failure of the O-rings) and dealing with the grim news that his abdominal cancer has returned, Rob Riley's Feynman looks forward to his appearance as "the chief of Bali Hai" in a community production of "South Pacific."

Oh, and he also has a lot to tell us about working on the Manhattan Project, the death of his first wife from tuberculosis while he was helping to build the atom bomb and, of course, quantum electrodynamics — the branch of physics that won him a Nobel Prize in 1965.

He's also working on a lecture titled "What We Know," and since it's safe to say that Feynman knew a lot more than many of us, his verbosity is understandable. It also accommodates the semi-conceit that we are the imaginary audience for this lecture-in-progress as Feynman works it out in his office — chalkboard and all. (Courtney O'Neill's set design surrounds us with equations, diagrams and epigrams, such as Feynman's "What I cannot create, I do not understand.")

But Riley's energetic performance can't overcome the sense that we are passengers on a quick-and-dirty sightseeing trip through Feynman Land, barely registering the highlights as we chug along — the prizes, the pangs of conscience about unleashing nuclear weapons, the disdain for "the official way of doing anything" — but missing the opportunities to contemplate the deeper meaning of what we're being shown.

Riley finds his most endearing moments in throwaway gestures and asides, as when he does a ridiculous little hip-swaying dance to a recording of Tuva throat-singing.

The real anguish underlying Feynman's immediate circumstances — whether he should have surgery for his deadly sarcoma — feels oddly muted here, though there is a late-breaking appearance from a plucky and comely female student, Miriam Field (Grace Wagner), who, in a sort of anti-"Oleanna" twist, flirts and dances with her professor and helps him see the value in taking one last stand against mortality. It's a sweet but insubstantial conclusion to a show that, while clearly in love with its subject, fails to fully flesh him out.

ctc-arts@tribune.com

When: Through Dec. 9

Where: Collaboraction Theatre, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Tickets: $25 at 866-212-4077 or theatre4humanity.org

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