When you imagine the exploits of the young Isaac Newton, cartoon graphics of falling apples and a fortuitous knock on the noggin might come to mind. But Lucas Hnath’s eloquent Isaac’s Eye—now playing at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, in a sensitive production by Linsay Firman—strips away the Newtonian clichés to present a plainspoken fable about the loneliness of genius and the transforming power of the scientific gaze.
Newton once invented an atmospheric medium called ether (long disproved) to help explain the movement of bodies in space. Hnath employs theatrical fiction in a similar manner, conjuring made-up events to illuminate some enigmatic Newtonian biographical details. (Throughout the play, the actors keep a running tally on a blackboard upstage of what’s real and what’s invented).
Taking off from from the odd and unexplained fact that Newton once stuck a needle into his own tear duct, presumably pursuing some scientific lead or other, Hnath imagines a scenario in which Newton, on the cusp of a brilliant career, must decide between romance and science. Hnath’s Newton (Haskell King) emerges as a Bill Gates-ish savant, certain of the divine origin of his inspirations but troublingly tone-deaf to human relationships. As one point on a love triangle, along with his childhood friend Catherine (Kristen Bush) and his brilliant contemporary, the polymath Robert Hooke (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells), Newton eventually chooses fame and posterity over love and family.
Performed on a mostly bare stage, Isaac’s Eye is thankfully free of powdered wigs, tacky accents or labored period details. Instead, Hnath’s characters speak in contemporary American idioms—young Isaac greets good news with a strangled little “Yay!” He lets the disparity between then and now stimulate our imaginations. The excellent company performs its roles in a restrained, just-the-facts style—as though demonstrating the steps to an experiment. As a result, the play’s complex emotions loom larger.
Isaac’s Eye evokes the Wild West origins of modern science, when the territory to be explored was limitless, rules governing experiments were few, and the Renaissance’s renaissance men could be experts in many fields simultaneously. Hooke, Newton’s rival, made discoveries in anatomy, physics, chemistry, and many other disciplines before science was subdivided into a plethora of narrow niches. Hnath also succeeds in reminding us that religion and science weren’t always bitter foes: his Newton believes that his intuitions of natural laws governing the world give him glimpses of the mind of God at work, and he furiously scribbles away at a corrected version of the Bible.
Newton’s probing needle becomes a potent metaphor both for the incisive sight of the visionary—Newton sees clues to the workings of the universe in the way sunshine strikes the wall of his room—and for the operation of science itself. Isaac’s eye really did change the way the rest of us see.