Beatrice Tinsley superstar
by Stuart Hoar
directed by Susan Wilson
at Circa, Wellington
until 8 October
In astronomical terms Beatrice Tinsley was a quasar, or superstar, best described as the hyperactive centre of a very old galaxy.
That her name and major contributions to cosmology and astronomical theory remain little known in New Zealand is reason enough for Stuart Hoar to make her the subject of Bright Star, commissioned by Circa last year. His third bio-play about international scientists with New Zealand roots, it follows Rutherford (2000) and The Facemaker (2001, about plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe), all directed at Circa by Sue Wilson.
As dramatised by Hoar, Beatrice Tinsley (Tina Regtien) tries to shine in an “old galaxy” of establishment academics who believe the universe, like their university, is a closed system. They cling to a theological faith in cyclic creation to discount her theory that the universe is open and expanding at ever-increasing speed towards oblivion.
In 1960s and 70s socio-political terms Tinsley stands for the right of women, and women scientists in particular, to shine to their full potential. Not that she’s out to lead a revolution. She just wants to be what she is and, as with stars, that includes not always doing what other people want her to do. The flaws this gives her make her all the more interesting.
Having met and married fellow physics student Brian Tinsley at Canterbury University, Beatrice, the daughter of an Anglican vicar, dutifully followed him to the University of Texas. They adopted two children and she combined parenting with travelling to the Austin campus, 200 miles from Dallas, to research the Evolution of Galaxies and its Significance for Cosmology for her PhD dissertation, which she completed with near perfect marks (99 and 100 per cent).
Ingeniously inverting Beatrice’s quest to expand, the play compresses her story into late 1974, when huge life-changing choices are confronted. Hobbled by entrenched conservatism and male chauvinism in Dallas, she looks further afield to pursue her true passion and Yale (in New Haven, Connecticut) offers the key to her liberation.
Three men characterise the male perspective. Brian (Peter Hambleton) is benign and loving but incapable of seeing that, after twelve years of having it his way, his relatively mediocre career should no longer suppress his wife’s much greater potential. Her vicar father, Edward Hill (Ken Blackburn), is a smooth practitioner of the Anglican way of exerting control in the guise of good manners but in the end he is supportive, if bemused by knowledge beyond his understanding.
Professor Furstmere (Gerald Bryan) also presents as a gentle man but he proves insidiously patronising, complacent and self-satisfied. His Santa Claus role at Christmas says it all when it comes to having the power to offer largesse, or not, depending on who had been good, or not, in his personal view. Hambleton, Blackburn and Bryan all give very well judged performances.
The pre-revolution woman’s lot is personified in Beatrice’s friend and neighbour Andrea (Jane Waddell) who lives out the Country and Western relationship nightmare without self pity. She wanted marriage and children, that’s what she’s got and provided she can go shopping with hubby’s money she will put up with teenage terrorists and a philandering spouse. Waddell delivers both comedy and effective pathos in sharing her character’s journey.
Taking her cue from the “hyperactive centre” definition of a quasar, and her love of Bach fugues, Tina Regtien brings an ebullient energy to Beatrice, counter pointing her unbridled passion for all things cosmic with a short-fused intolerance of less-than-rigorous scholarship, institutional blindness and social injustice. Anyone irritated by her inability to stay still or behave predictably let alone “properly” is instantly engaging with the play’s core issue and rather than question this splendid performance they should consider their own conservatism.
John Hodgkins’ black hole setting, strategically lit by Martyn Roberts, with cosmic and artistic digital imagery by Andrew Brettell projected on three floating screens, frees Susan Wilson’s production from naturalistic gravity and helps to illuminate the play’s greater realities.
Because each particular and universal point is so well made, some repetition in the script proves redundant but that is easily fixed. The physical but non-verbal presence of the children in a few brief sequences feels awkward, contrived and trivialised. They deserve more status in the play’s mini-universe and this will take more time to resolve.
These cavils aside, both play and production shine all the brighter for containing their creative energies in a seemingly closed system with the Bright Star at their centre.
It is a tragic irony that the brightest star in our solar system, the sun, gave Beatrice Tinsley the melanoma that precipitated the cancers that killed her at 40, in 1981. Only in the late 1990s, thanks to the Hubble Telescope’s investigations of supernovae, did her theory prove irrefutable. She was clearly a woman ahead of her time and her story comes out not before time.