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Tuesday, March 5

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Theater Mon Feb 17 2014

Saint Sebastian Players Offer a Study in Patriotism: In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer


Photo by John C. Oster.

Saint Sebastian Players are taking a brave step in presenting a three-hour march back into an important period of history that impinges on how we think about privacy and patriotism today. A three-hour historical play, you're thinking? Yes, and it's a fascinating, totally immersive story that will have you hanging on every word spoken In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Written by German playwright Heinar Kipphardt in 1964 and translated by Ruth Speirs, the play and its 14-member cast are carefully directed by Kaitlin Taylor.

Oppenheimer (Gary Barth) was the theoretical physicist (considered "the father of the atomic bomb") who led the Manhattan Project: the team of brilliant physicists who developed the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, NM, in the 1940s. Their work resulted in the US dropping bombs on two Japanese cities in August 1945 with the stated purpose of ending the war quickly.

After the physicists saw the impact of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of them became uneasy about how their invention was used. This led to Oppenheimer's less-than-enthusiastic support for the development of the much more lethal hydrogen bomb.

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer is the story of the month-long hearing by the Atomic Energy Commission's Personnel Security Board in April-May 1954. The issue was whether Oppenheimer's security clearance should be lifted because of questions about his loyalty and earlier Communist sympathies. The charges against him were based on the suspicion that he had caused a delay in the development of the US hydrogen bomb that allowed Russia to catch up in the atomic arms race.

The play opens with film of physicists setting up the atomic bomb test at Alamogordo, NM, and then we see the first desert explosion. The screen is used throughout to show the pace of the proceedings. Between scenes, some of the actors come to the front of the stage for monologues that reflect upon the proceedings.

The play takes place near the end of the McCarthy era, but HUAC (the House UnAmerican Activities Committee) and other rabidly anti-Communist organizations were still active. Like many intellectuals in the 1930s, Oppenheimer was sympathetic to Communism's stated aims of social justice, but he never actually joined the party. During the hearing, he freely discusses his earlier activities, including financial support for the leftwing forces in the Spanish Civil War.

Barth does an excellent job portraying Oppenheimer, a chain smoker and reserved speaker who at times becomes emotional during his testimony. Despite being shorter than Oppenheimer, Barth successfully creates a physical resemblance. Among the actors portraying the board and legal team, Eric S. Prahl does a fine job as Roger Robb, the counsel for the AEC, whose sparring with Oppenheimer is the heart of the play.

At one point, Robb asks Oppenheimer if his attitude is not a bit schizophrenic. Robb says, "To produce the thing, to pick the targets, to determine the height at which the explosion has the maximum effect--and then to be overcome with moral scruples at the consequences. Isn't that a trifle schizophrenic, Doctor?"

Oppenheimer answers, "Yes . . . It is the kind of schizophrenia we physicists have been living with for several years now . . . . The great discoveries of modern science have been put to horrible use. Nuclear energy is not the atomic bomb."

Oppenheimer apparently was a frustrating client. His lawyer says he "put his faith in the power of argument; his defense was refutation of error." Oppenheimer observes, "I disapprove of a man being destroyed because of his past opinions."

The three members of the board are Jonathan "Rocky" Hagloch as chairman Gordon Gray, a journalist; Patrick Bromley as Thomas Morgan, chairman and CEO of what was then the Sperry Gyroscope Company; and Marshall Mark Jacobson as Ward Evans, professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago. Evans turns out to be the most philosophically inquisitive member and the one sympathetic to Oppenheimer's situation.

The rest of the legal team are C.A. Rolander (Matthew Fayfer) for the AEC (at one point, he makes fun of the concept of "privacy"); and Lloyd Garrison (Paul Russell) and Herbert S. Marks (Steven Walanka) for Oppenheimer. The two latter actors clearly had not had spent enough time running their lines; both sometimes stumbled, even though they carried yellow notepads that presumably might have helped them. Walanka, however, does a credible job in his closing remarks on behalf of Oppenheimer.

After Oppenheimer's long testimony, the witnesses appear. They include military and governmental representatives (mostly unfavorable to Oppenheimer) and famed physicists such as Edward Teller (Julian David Colletta does a nice portrayal of the Hungarian émigré and "father of the hydrogen bomb") and Oppenheimer's friend, the German, Hans Bethe (Logan Hulick).

Oppenheimer was found to be disloyal and lost his security clearance. His reputation was resuscitated in 1963 when President Lyndon Johnson presented him with the Enrico Fermi Prize for services rendered to the atomic energy program.

Kipphardt's play was produced in Germany; its first US production was in New York in 1968. The playwright's goal was to freely adapt the 3,000 pages of hearing transcripts "to create a play for the theater" while adhering "strictly to the facts that emerged." For instance, 40 witnesses were actually interviewed while the play presents six.

The Saint Sebastian playhouse is a comfortable venue in the basement of St. Bonaventure Church in Lakeview, with a pleasant lobby area. The stage is a raised space, allowing ample room for tables for the board and two legal teams. The witness sits in the center in a vintage wooden armchair. Emil Zbella's set design and Chazz Malott's lighting mimic the drab atmosphere of a government meeting room and include appropriate period items such as a portrait of President Dwight Eisenhower, small fans and lamps. The all-male cast wear business suits suitable to the period. Oppenheimer's famous hat is recreated effectively.

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer will be presented by Saint Sebastian Players until March 9 at St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey. The theater entrance is the red door on Marshfield, around the corner from the church entrance. Free parking is available in two church lots. Performances are at 8pm Friday-Saturday and 2pm Sunday. Tickets are $20 (some discounts available) and can be purchased online. For information, call 773-404-7922.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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