Behind the Well-Known Name of a Little Known Science Hero

1 tesla LBM_62_Duos_POTM_Dan Duling_Diane Challis Davy_By Jody Tiongco-4
“Tesla” playwright Dan Duling, left, with his longtime collaborator Diane Challis Davy, director of the Pageant of the Masters.

“It will soon be possible to transmit wireless messages around the world so simply that any individual can carry and operate his own apparatus,” predicted Nikola Tesla in 1906.

Today the name brings to mind sleek electric cars made by Tesla Motors, named in homage to the immigrant scientist possessed of more vision and creativity than renown, at least during his lifetime. For example, it was Tesla who invented alternating current electricity, the force that still keeps lights on around the globe, but his rival, Thomas Edison, a more adroit marketer, got the credit for it.

Among science geeks, Tesla ranks among its pantheon of heroes, inspiring playwright Dan Duling to write “Tesla: A Radio Play for the Stage,” about the émigré from the former Yugoslavia whose 1,000 miles a minute mind invented radio and radar and a plethora of innovations that, by accounts, bear others’ names.

“I am excited about writing a radio play for the stage,” said Duling, enamored of the theatrical possibilities of live radio on stage, with five actors playing 50 roles and a variety of sound effects designed to tell a story certain to amp up the audience’s imagination.

Actor French Stewart
Actor French Stewart

Opening at Laguna Playhouse on Friday, May 26, for only four performances, the play stars Hal Linden, Gregory Harrison, Dan Lauria, Charles Shaughnessy,  French Stewart and Vanessa Stewart. Every actor, save for the Stewarts play multiple parts. Michael Arabian, remembered for his deft handling of “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” directs.

First performed at the Playhouse in Pasadena, in proximity to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, the play begins with Tesla’s death in 1943 and segues into his life story. Instead it celebrates his key struggles and triumphs as a scientist in America. “While he made the cover of Time magazine at age 75, he could have accomplished even more had he been given the right opportunities. Instead he became a footnote in scientific history,” said Duling, of Los Angeles, best known in Laguna Beach for his colorful scripting of the Pageant of the Masters production. He is currently working on “The Grand Tour,” his 37th production.

Actor Dan Luria
Actor Dan Luria

“Thomas Edison was embraced as the greatest inventor of the 20th century. Part of the reason of the play is to let new generations become aware of the greatest scientific mind of the late 19th and 20th century that was Nikola Tesla,” said Duling. While Edison may have been a guiding light of the 20th century, Tesla had already envisioned the 21st century, he said.

Duling notes that his protagonist’s struggle against a more entrenched scientific and business establishment carries no current political overtones here. “It’s simply a fascinating story,” he said. He’s tweaked the script since its Pasadena debut for story telling purposes.

What emerges is that Tesla had never married even though his darkly handsome looks, linguistic facility and charm made him a hit at parties and with women. “He was a charismatic story teller, an attractive gentleman who spoke several languages, but remained married to his work,” remarked Duling.

Actor Gregory Harrison
Actor Gregory Harrison

The playwright started research on the project in early 1990, working for more than two years to create the through line to engage his audience. Still, he stuck it back into a drawer until eight years ago when inspiration struck at a writers’ retreat. With no Pageant, no distractions, he came up with the radio play form of story telling, replete with sound effects created by Anthony Palermo, he said.

“When the show opened in Pasadena, lines were so long we had to turn people away,” he said. “We have a great cast that is prominent in television and film and an exciting format that combines radio and theater.”

He added more stage direction for actors standing behind microphones for more theatrical effect and kept actors in contemporary clothing. Background projections feature images of period environments and what characters looked like around the turn of the 20th century, adding an element of film craft.

He described the production as a work in progress. “We are hoping for a future full production at the Laguna Playhouse,” he said, adding that visual effects will include a demonstration of the Tesla Coil. “People will see the coil turned on, throwing arching electrical charges that the audience can see, somewhat like a Frankenstein lab.

Laguna Playhouse Executive Director Ellen Richard described the play’s subject as an under-appreciated, and under-recognized innovator. “I think this play gives encouragement to anyone who ever had a dream, showing that perseverance wins in the end,” she said.

“Tesla: A Radio Play For The Stage.” Friday, May 26, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 27, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, May 28, 1 p.m. Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road.


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