Jim Kern, no stranger to the Cedar Rapids arts and theater scene, has found the right equation for making his Riverside Theatre debut in Iowa City.
He’s playing Albert Einstein in “Relativity,” running Friday (4/14) through April 30. It’s part of a rolling world premiere, where four theaters across the country are staging the new script this year, in the National New Play Network’s quest for developing and calling attention to new works.
“At my age, getting to chomp into such a delicious role is just a thrill,” said Kern, 67, two years younger than the character he’s portraying. “You reach a certain point where you think, ‘Well, OK, it’s going to be cameos or the goofy old guy who carries the packages up six flights of stairs in ‘Barefoot in the Park,’ and then goes home.’”
Director Angie Toomsen of Iowa City invited him to a cold audition last September. He hadn’t even seen the script yet.
“I’ve loved work that I’ve seen Jim do in the past,” Toomsen said. “Most notably, I was very moved by his performance as the Stage Manager in ‘Our Town’ at Brucemore two or three years ago. It just really stuck in my mind and my heart how connected he was to the material. So in looking at men of a certain age with a certain amount of hair, Jim instantly came to mind.”
Besides the research and memorization Kern plunged into, he also hasn’t had a haircut since Sept. 1; he’s let his eyebrows go wild, which he said is driving him crazy; and since Jan. 1, has been growing a big, bushy mustache to affect Einstein’s signature look.
“It’s now hanging over my lower lip, which is a real challenge on many practical levels,” he said, “but an as actor, the mouth is an important part of what you show an audience in terms of what the character is thinking (and) doing. So I’m trying to keep it bushy and overflowing, but still get it enough out of the way so my mouth can be part of the tools.”
That commitment to detail is another aspect Toomsen appreciates.
“Jim is a deep thinker. He thinks with his heart and his head, and those are my favorite kinds of actors to work with,” she said. “I was excited by the research he had already done before the audition and the connection points with the human struggle — Jim’s not approaching it as a caricature or an imitation of an icon. He’s really approaching it as a unique human being who is based upon a real person, but becomes a separate instance of that person in this play.”
“Relativity” builds on the notion that Einstein fathered a daughter who may or may not have lived for a couple of years, if at all. Toomsen was intrigued by the script, written by Mark St. Germain. A veteran screen writer, author and playwright, he also penned “Dancing Lessons,” which Toomsen directed at Riverside Theatre in April 2016.
She’s drawn to St. Germain’s recurring theme of using historical “what ifs,” where he takes historical figures and puts them in a fictional scenario as a way of exploring who they might have been, along with “what they mean to us, in terms of their icon status and their identity,” she said.
Evidence shows that Einstein’s alleged daughter, who disappeared from documentation around age 2, may not have died of scarlet fever as suspected, but may have survived and had a whole other life, Toomsen said. The “what ifs” begins when a reporter, played by Riverside veteran Saffron Henke, interviews Einstein about a daughter who most likely was raised elsewhere.
The reporter starts digging into the reasons why someone would give up a child, Toomsen said, delving into the notion that the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who developed the Theory of Relativity and the equation E = mc2, put his life’s work before family.
“Was this one of the most profound statements of his prioritization? And what does that really mean in terms of him being a good man versus a great man,” she said.
“I was drawn to the project for that dramatic scenario — the reporter comes, it’s one scene where they have one very complex roller coaster conversation that surprises both of them and uncovers things about Albert Einstein as a character in the play that are surprising, that humanize him and that demystify him. I found that to be a very crackly, dramatic situation to work on.”
The play also has more lighthearted moments, especially from Einstein’s real-life secretary and housekeeper, Helen Dukas, rumored to have been his secret lover, Toomsen said.
“She was such a loyal figure in his life that he left all of his intellectual property to her, and not his children,” Toomsen said. “The character is written also to provide some comic relief.” Riverside veteran Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers is playing the role. “In addition to being an incredibly strong dramatic actress, she is a wonderful comedic actress, so her part and her involvement bring a lot of levity to the show.”
The way Einstein plays his celebrity status as “the brilliant absent-minded professor who said witty things and witty aphorisms,” also adds a lighter touch, Toomsen said.
The drama, however, unfolds as the reporter “starts digging into things in the context of the play that Einstein has never said out loud or articulated to himself before,” Toomsen said. “It’s like an archaeological dig into the emotional life and conscience of one of the most famous, most important thinkers in human history.”
WHERE: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
WHEN: Friday (4/14) to April 30; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $18 to $30, $12 Thursday student special; Riverside Box Office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org/relativity