When Sasha Olinick was in junior high school, he had a life-size poster of Albert Einstein hanging in his bedroom. This month you can catch Olinick inhabiting the erratically coifed, mustached Nobel Prize winner at ExPats Theatre.
Serbian playwright Snezena Gnjidic’s “Einstein’s Wife” takes a deep dive into the fraught relationship between Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric Einstein, a fellow mathematician who was Einstein’s equal, and, perhaps — depending on which scholars you consult — was more gifted in her understanding of physics.
“Einstein’s Wife,” which runs through March 22 at the District’s Atlas Performing Arts Center feels a bit like Edward Albee’s emotional marital battleground “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in the way the couple are both intensely connected and coolly distant, Olinick said.
For Olinick, who previously played an older, more benevolent characterization of the scientist in the Hub Theatre’s 2018 “Secrets of the Universe,” Einstein is a personality who holds endless fascination.
“He’s among my favorite character roles,” Olinick said one afternoon before teaching his introduction to acting class at Montgomery College in Rockville.
“I think I knew what every Jewish kid learns about him,” he said. That includes “what a pacifist he was and a humanitarian. I knew that he’d been offered the presidency in Israel. But he was sort of this eccentric who bucked trends and, of course, he had really revolutionized how we think about the universe.
“I also had an admiration for his sense of humor and what an odd duck he was as a person, but how much he was insistent on being who he was,” Olinick added.
But his second meeting with Einstein explores a completely different aspect of his character.
Mileva and Einstein both studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, where they grew close. Einstein’s family opposed the relationship — Mileva was neither Jewish nor German — and purportedly Einstein’s mother felt he needed a wife to attend to her son’s practical needs — be a helpmeet, rather than his equal in scientific theory.
Einstein and Mileva had a child the year before the couple married in 1903. Yet no one knows what happened to the baby girl, Liserl. Presumably she was given up for adoption. Any mention of the baby stopped a few months after her birth. With Einstein’s growing prominence in the scientific world as he honed his theory of relativity and other seminal discoveries, the couple’s relationship unraveled. He began an affair with his cousin, who would eventually become his second wife.
“Einstein’s Wife,” which was translated into English by Milena Garfield and is directed by Karin Rosnizeck, who founded ExPats Theatre, draws from recently discovered personal correspondence. Although the play is fiction, the letters suggest Mileva made substantial contributions to Einstein’s scientific theories, but received no credit.
“I read the Walter Isaacson biography of Einstein, which is the gold standard,” Olinick said and he was not surprised by the contrasting portraits of the scientist. In the 2018 production of Marc Acito’s “Secrets of the Universe,” Olinick portrayed Einstein as eccentric, irascible but generous — the premise centers on his invitation to host opera singer Marion Anderson after she is denied a hotel room in Princeton, N.J., because she was black. Einstein was and continues to be remembered as a notable humanist and supporter of civil rights, which Acito’s play emphasized.
“I think Isaacson treats him very fairly and shows a lot of his different sides,” Olinick said of his one-time childhood hero. And he learned about Mileva from Isaacson’s account. In fact, the actor added, “I remember my dad made passing references that [Einstein] really didn’t treat his first wife very well and had really complicated relationships with his children.”
Tackling this non-hagiographic version of Einstein has been eye-opening for Olinick: “The play starts from the premise that Mileva was an equal contributor to his ideas about relativity. And if you believe that, then you have to build a view of him that is selfish and harsh,” he said.
Is he worried about being typecast as Einstein – particularly the smiling, wild-haired, mustached image that has permeated pop culture?
“I’m not worried about it. He is a person of incredible depth and contradictions, so I think there is great material for playwrights to explore different sides of him,” Olinick said. “He was different at different times during his life.
“I don’t want Einstein to be the only person that I play again for the rest of my life, but I could see going back to the character in different iterations. There is more and more material being written about him.”
The actor smiled and, with a nod to the Theory of Relativity, said, “Einstein would say that there’s an infinite number of Einsteins.”
“Einstein’s Wife” by Snezana Gnjidic, March 5-22, ExPats Theatre, Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington; $17.50=$35; for tickets and information, visit atlasarts.org/events/einstein’s-wife.