Round House Theatre
Through Feb. 28
Timely, intensely personal, and moving, Lauren Gunderson’s new work, a one-man play titled “The Catastrophist” (a Round House Theatre and Marin Theatre Company world premiere digital co-production now streaming through the end of February), is an 80-minute dive into the life and work of famed virologist Dr. Nathan Wolfe, a compelling protagonist who just so happens to be the playwright’s real-life husband.
It opens with Wolfe (appealingly played by William DeMerritt) ambling onto an empty stage where he unwittingly becomes the focus of his wife’s latest script. And though Gunderson isn’t seen, her presence is felt. Now and then, Wolfe shares her thoughts (“My wife would like me to tell you …”).
His story unfolds in titled scenes that hopscotch from childhood recollections to 2016 when the play is set. And though it’s not exactly today, it’s every much about what’s happening in the world now.
More drama than science, Gunderson manages to keep the viewer interested in both sickness and the man. Marin Company’s artistic director – and the play’s director – Jasson Minadakis commissioned Gunderson to write “The Catastrophist” during the COVID-19 pandemic, though it doesn’t reference COVID directly, it touches on the causes, fears, and disastrous repercussions surrounding the pandemic.
Gunderson, whose work is wildly popular in American regional theater, portrays her husband as rather a Renaissance man – he’s artistic, athletic, scientific, spiritual, and, especially as played DeMerritt, demonstrably cocky, kind, and vulnerable.
Wolfe shares his early years in Detroit as a musical theater-loving, straight kid with a collection of “Playbills” pinned to his bedroom wall. Though he’ll grow up to be an atheist, he’s steeped in his family’s Jewish beliefs, particularly adhering to the concept of the Tikkun Olam, a deep respect for social action, healing, and the pursuit of social justice
After earning degrees at Harvard, Wolfe is off to West Africa for nearly a decade followed by a basement lab at the CDC in Atlanta where his research focuses primarily on the transmission of viruses closely related to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) between nonhuman primates and bushmeat hunters in Africa. Success ensues and he becomes a notable virus hunter, does Ted Talks, receives grants and publishes papers and, in 2011, his bestselling book, “The Viral Storm.”
Filmed on a bare stage in Marin’s Boyer Theatre and presented entirely digitally, DeMerritt assays Wolfe engagingly. Dressed in street clothes, he brings vibrancy and an immediacy to the unadorned, moodily lit space.
DeMerritt, a multi-ethnic actor and New York native, is perhaps best known for his work in HBO’s “The Normal Heart,” based on the Tony Award-winning play by playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer.
But, back to the play. The fall of 2014 proves a powerfully seminal time for Wolfe. As he slides into middle age, life intensifies. He and his wife are expecting their first son, his beloved father is stricken with cancer, and Wolfe becomes increasingly worried about worldwide pandemics. So intent is he to make his point about the seriousness of the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, Wolfe attends an important CDC meeting in Washington while passing a kidney stone.
Despite his best efforts, Wolfe is accused of mishandling the Ebola scourge, an allegation that strikes deep. The playwright takes the opportunity to defend her husband’s unjustly perceived shortcomings. And she mentions her husband’s plan to protect the economy from pandemics years before the COVID-19 outbreak.
But ultimately, it’s genetics and not a virus that levels the most harmful blow of all. (Not to spoil the ending, I’ll stop there.) Never dry, informative, and affecting, Gunderson’s play is filled with surprises and meaningful moments.