"Math was my Waterloo," Dennis Maher says, explaining what attracts him to the role of Albert Einstein, whom he'll play at Theatre Arlington beginning this month. The longtime University of Texas at Arlington theater arts professor has brought many historical figures to life on stage, but Einstein immediately stood out to him because of their key differences. “This spoke to me because Einstein is so far away from me in temperament and as far as education," he says.
Maher, who is 67 and in his 36th year at UT Arlington, directs at least one performance a year, and it's often a one-man show in which he also stars. His previous roles have included maverick physicist Richard Feynman, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt and author Mark Twain, a role he first landed at age 21.
He can portray Twain with a lot less makeup today, he says, adding that he was beginning to think Benjamin Franklin was the only age-appropriate role left when he spotted the script for Einstein in a New York book shop. You can see Maher in the one-man show Einstein: A Stage Portrait beginning Friday, Aug. 4.
Sitting in his office, Maher recalls his algebra teacher telling him that he would get a passing grade only if he promised to never take another math class in order to spare the next math teacher any torture. He was the sort of student who could get the right answer but had no clue how, he says. And worse yet, he was unable to show his work on paper.
To keep the play’s equations authentic enough to avoid heckling, UT Arlington assistant physics professor Ben Jones is coaching Maher.
”Einstein and I do have something in common,” Maher says. “We both drove our teachers nuts.”
Although math was not one of Maher’s strong points, biology was. His father was an undertaker in East St. Louis, Illinois, he says, and as a high school biology student he had seen more autopsies than many first-year medical students. The veteran actor explains that a lot of ridiculous things have been written about Einstein, and in Willard Simms’ one-person play, the Jewish genius invites people into his Princeton home to “get the record straight.”
Maher and Theatre Arlington executive director Valerie Galloway have worked to make audience members feel as if they are sitting around with Einstein, he says, and the result is a seriously fun performance peppered with a generous portion of humor and honesty.
“Will it get people to think?” he asks. “I hope.
“Will it have relevance to things that are happening right now?” he continues. “The answer is yes, yes, yes to the 14th power.”
Maher explains how Einstein harbored lots of inner conflict, some of which stemmed from his association with the atomic bomb. He says Einstein signed a 1939 letter, which will be on display during the performance, essentially saying how he believed material was being gathered to make some type of atomic weapons, and it would be prudent for the United States to do the same.
“The bomb really hung over his head for the rest of his life,” he says. “He would much rather have been known as a musician, a violinist.”
In the play, Einstein, who quarreled with quantum mechanics, talks about his unified field theory along with other topics like mental illness and his love life.
“Apparently, he was rather an in-demand person in the sexual game,” Maher says.
Maher places his head near a photo of Einstein at about the same age to prove that he did not have to a lot of preparation for the performance, “except for the wig.” The script was on his bucket list, and he had already begun researching Einstein when he received a call from Galloway asking if he was interested in playing the role.
“We were on the same quantum mechanical wave,” he says. “We probably had the shortest negotiation in the history of negotiations."
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What Maher admires most about Einstein is his “insistence that wherever there is injustice, that we must speak out despite the cost.” He has tried not to watch depictions of the character in shows like National Geographic’s Genius in order to keep from diluting the information he already has about the wild-haired scientist.
Galloway says she enjoyed watching National Geographic’s take on Einstein’s biography.
“Historical accuracy is sometimes iconoclastic, as it was in the series,” she says. “Einstein: A Stage Portrait is also historically accurate but presents the doctor in a gentler light.”
Einstein: A Stage Portrait, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 20, Theatre Arlington, 315 W. Main St., Arlington. Tickets are $23 at theatrearlington.org.