A Story We Dare Not Forget: “Oppenheimer”

I saw a pair of overtly political plays this last week (and passed up the opportunity to see several others). The two plays are wildly different in style, one serious and one comic, one traditional in form and one fooling freely with immersion and the fourth wall. But they’re equally pertinent to the political times we’re in, on the verge of what may be the most crucial midterm federal election in our history. This was the first play.

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Mark Jacobson, Kenney Selvey, James Liebman, Brewster Parsons, Zachary Grant (photo: John Perrin Flynn)

You’ve heard of “American exceptionalism.” The notion that our nation is somehow different from — and better than — the rest.

We speak proudly of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution  (not of their being written by rich white slaveholders). We point out our continent’s natural wonders and wide-open spaces (not the 400-year genocide that made it empty, and ours).

We brag about rebuilding Europe and Japan after World War II (but not about why Japan — where there was only one land battle — had to be rebuilt).

Oppenheimer, getting its US premiere from Rogue Machine, lays out  the answer to that last question and opens several others. It also tears American exceptionalism to ribbons, and in its place weaves a far more complex picture.

The play traces a decade in the life of a young physicist, who goes from a modest teaching post to being world famous. What makes his career (and perhaps unmakes his life) is the creation he shepherds into being — the atomic bomb.

Among the theorists chasing down the atom in the 1930s, Robert Oppenheimer is not a leading light — but he’s bright enough to grasp all their work. He’s also a social leader, charismatic and ambitious. So when the US joins World War II and realizes Germany may discover nuclear weapons, Washington turns to Oppenheimer. His job is to hold the loose, often fractious debating club of physicists together and focus their minds on a single task — building a workable bomb.

Oppenheimer tracks his progress, starting with bohemian parties in Berkeley to raise funds for the Spanish Civil War, and ending in the New Mexico desert where the bomb emerges from the paranoid wrappings of military security.

The play moves rapidly — director John Perrin Flynn sets the swift  pace early — yet it still takes two hours. (It could be trimmed to 90 minutes without losing any storylines.) It also deploys 24 actors in more than 30 roles — a lot of traffic onstage, and backstage, and a lot of audience program-flipping. (Several characters could be dropped.)

As usual, Rogue Machine’s artists mount a polished production.  Stephanie Kerlie Schwartz’s spare, flexible set uses benches — and  Nicholas Santiago’s projections — to sketch the story’s shifting locales, and Dianne Graebner’s costumes keep us firmly in the period. Matt Richter’s lighting and Christopher Moscatiello’s sound create the many ambiences (including a wry nod to Dr. Strangelove and a jarringly effective bomb blast).

As Oppenheimer, James Liebman creates a likable genius with one  toe on the autistic spectrum. He’s often so inwardly focused he  seems aloof; he’s stubborn when faced with change; yet he can be lively and engaged in all kinds of relationships, from military to intimate. Liebman grounds his character by bringing intense stillness to the many solo moments playwright Tom Morton-Smith gives him; we find ourselves watching closely for his smallest facial gesture.

As Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s unstable lover, Kirsten Kollender has an opposite challenge: Every feeling and thought pours out unchecked. Kollender delivers this without losing her character’s core, or her besieged intelligence. Ron Bottita gives a similarly  strong performance as Gen. Leslie Groves,  a logistical genius who summons the Manhattan Project into being. Bottita’s Groves moves, with credible effort, from a world where his orders can build a city to tolerating the unruly band of academics (most of them leftists) under Oppenheimer.

Among the unruly band, Dan Via is both charming and scary as the naive Hungarian genius Edward Teller, who sees a clear path to the hydrogen bomb and wants to go there. Mark Jacobsen is effective as Oppie’s loyal lieutenant, Bob Serber; and Michael Redfield portrays the German refugee Hans Bethe as perceptive and wary.

Oppenheimer takes us comfortably into the mysteries of nuclear physics, but only as far as we need in order to follow the story. It goes a good deal deeper into moral quandaries, from marital (and filial) fidelity to militarism and weapons-making, and how politicians calling “War!” can shrink civil and personal liberties.

In this era, we are urged to revive the American exceptionalism myth and make our nation “great” again. Oppenheimer is a play we need. It quietly but firmly reminds us that we have as much darkness in us as anybody and that, as Nietzsche said, whoever fights monsters must risk becoming one. As we enlist in this generation’s worldwide fight against fascism, we need first to stand with Oppenheimer at the test site, repeating with him the awful truth from the Bhagavad Gita —
“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
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Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith, directed by John Perrin Flynn. Presented by Rogue Machine Theatre, at The Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice 90291.

Various dates and times
through December 30.

Tickets: <www.roguemachine.com>