Most of recorded history has been filtered through the male perspective. Women’s contributions to science, philosophy, and the arts in past centuries have generally been credited to men in those fields instead, or simply ignored altogether. Playwright Lauren Gunderson‘s Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight imaginatively celebrates one 18th century woman who defied the norm and was noted in her own time for publications on physics and her rejection of accepted roles for women. Sonorous Road Repertory Company‘s lively production boasts knowing direction, astute performances, and clever technical elements.

Born in 1706 to members of the French nobility, Emilie had unusual access to education through tutors and quickly took to science and languages. At age 18, she had an arranged marriage to a marquis, giving her wealth and status. After having three children, she resumed her studies in 1733, particularly in physics. Her chance meeting with famous writer and philosopher Voltaire led to a life-long relationship. She invited Voltaire to live with her at her chateau, with the approval of her understanding husband.

Emilie and Voltaire were competitive in their experiments and writings. Despite his and the scientific community’s disdain for women’s intellect, Emilie was able to publish a widely praised book on physics and complete a translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which became the standard French version. Voltaire, jealous of Emilie’s successes, eventually drifted away from her; into that void came a soldier-poet with whom she formed a loving relationship. She became pregnant in 1749 and, in bearing his child, died at age 42.

Gunderson’s highly theatrical premise is that Emilie has come back to life before us in an unexplained but welcome chance to tell us about her life and what she was trying to accomplish. She narrates parts of her life as an outsider watching it take place (with another actor becoming Emilie); in other parts, she steps into the scenes herself. Voltaire is played by a single actor, but all the other characters, from husbands, children, and servants, to society members, are played by three additional actors. Gunderson’s underlying intent is serious, but she presents it in a witty, often satirical manner in the style of French stage comedies of the period.

This structure requires split-second changes of character, location, and timeframe. Director Egla Birmingham Hassan sets a vibrant pace from the beginning, uses the acting space adroitly, and instills the performers with precision and deftness in their constant interplay. Scenic designer Nicholas Lease‘s Baroque picture-frame backdrop, matching side blackboards filled with formulas, and period chairs, settee, and desk, give just enough context for the fast-moving scenes.

Rachel McKay’s costume design shrewdly defines present and past by putting Emilie in a colorful gold and blue period dress (based on a contemporary portrait), allowing her to be vividly alive before us. All the others are in ghostly white costumes that have period details but allow the three multi-role actors instantly to become different people by merely changing demeanor and character. Shelley Snapp‘s sound design fills out the scenes with crowd noises, courtly music, and a sharply-timed electronic buzzing that repeatedly snaps Emilie back to the present. Alyssa Petrone’s lighting helps separate the time frames and isolate private moments, although some scenes are too dimly lit or are in shadow.

The cast is satisfyingly consistent, headed by Michelle Murray Wells‘ passionate, multi-layered Emilie. On opening night, her characterization was fully realized and confidently presented, keeping the audience actively engaged in Emilie’s quest for knowledge, acceptance, and love. Wells displayed admirable emotional range and subtlety of expression in a lengthy role that never allowed her offstage.

Sterling Hurst‘s Voltaire amused in his laid-back, bad-boy attitude, spouting witticisms and sexual innuendoes. Despite the character’s arrogance and privilege, Hurst made Voltaire likable and entertaining. Justin Johnson expertly switched portrayals of husband, lover, servant, and Isaac Newton (among others) with a mere straightening of his back or the change of his voice. Samantha A. Matthews played a dutiful version of the alternate Emilie and found telling moments as a servant and society lady but grabbed attention with her chilling characterization of Emilie’s daughter, who confronts Emilie for not being a good mother. A. C. Donohue was given more caricatured roles to play, which she did with laugh-making results, but she also had her time in the spotlight as Emilie’s mother, who coldly admonishes her daughter for rejecting the traditional woman’s roles in society.

The two-act play moves swiftly through its two-hour duration, a tribute to director and actors who make the scientific and philosophical material clear and intriguing. Although the piece demands a certain level of attention to keep up with all the personages and historical events, it rewards with humorous and thought-provoking situations that resonate today. The production is one of Sonorous Road’s best, demonstrating the company’s ability to stage challenging material with professional assurance and experienced insight.

Emilie, La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight continues through Sunday, April 14. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.