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Theater Wed Jun 11 2014
Photo by Liz Seidt.
Our memories can beguile us, deceive us, even betray us. On the other hand, we also create those deceptions by repressing memories and even creating memories that never existed. The Half Life of Memory, Jason Lindner's fascinating new work produced by Cold Basement Dramatics, is a memory play... with a bang.
Salek (very well played by Mark Maxwell) is a retired physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. His memory is radioactive. Or so he thinks.
Salek is retired and in declining health. He lives in a nursing facility and dreams about visits by his colleagues from the past who try to make him relive his memories -- of helping to build a bomb that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese in 1945 -- and to create a new bomb from his radioactive brain.
Salek is visited in dreams and in vaudeville routines by four famous physicists and old friends. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Stephen Dale) led the Manhattan Project and later turned against the use of atomic power. Enrico Fermi (Daniel Planz), a charming and vibrant visitor, was an émigré from fascist Italy who encouraged the US to invest in atomic research; he led the team that created the first nuclear reaction under the stands at Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. Albert Einstein (Michael Sater) reminds the others that he started everything by determining in 1905 that E=mc2 (energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared). And finally, Edward Teller (Daniel Sappington), known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, goads Salek into creating a new and even more destructive explosive device. (Teller is considered one of the inspirations for the character Dr. Strangelove in the brilliant 1964 movie of that name.)
The play opens with a professorial Salek speaking to his students in a lecture hall of his dreams. (The theater program tells us that we are about to take the final exam in Physics 220, but the audience would be helped by having a little context about time and place added to the playbill.) Salek is interrupted by the four physicists who appear in a song and dance routine to the lyrics of "Are You Ready for That Great Atomic Power?" accompanied by Fermi on guitar. (The Louvin Brothers' 1952 country/gospel song is reprised here by Charlie Louvin with Jeff Tweedy on banjo and backing vocals.)
In the medical facility where Salek lives, the person who maintains a modicum of reality in his life is his nurse (an excellent performance by Laura Barati), who monitors his well-being and tries to get him to take his dementia meds.
Salek remembers his childhood in Poland: He was bullied as a Jew; his family troubles increased as the Nazis take over; he remembers the touch of the sweater his sister wore on the train to Treblinka. And he meets his future wife Helle (Teagan Walsh-Davis). He buys Helle a camera and she becomes a photography enthusiast and eventually a photographer, recording scenes of their life and travels. They are able to move to the United States, where Salek teaches and joins the Manhattan Project. Trinity, the atomic test, is successfully carried out on July 16, 1945. Their son is born on August 6, 1945.
Salek is torn by guilt and regret as he remembers his past and tries to complete his new bomb, all the while pulled in different directions by his memories and his visitors. (When he hears something he doesn't like, he covers his ears and loudly sings "Heart and Soul.") But gradually, the mysterious green liquid in the glass beaker increases to the level needed to create the oblivion he desires.
Director Sophie Blumberg does an excellent job of making these muddled times, characters and dreams hold together. The cast is generally very good, especially Maxwell and Barati as Salek and the nurse. Walsh-Davis as Helle is wistfully loving and flirtatious. Death is eerily represented by Shozzett Silva as the Eyeball Man. The four physicists present interpretations, rather than caricatures, of the people they represent. Dale does well as Oppenheimer with his pipe and the light-colored vested suit he's seen wearing in many photos; all that was missing was the trademark Oppie hat. Sappington usually walked with the limp Teller had since a teenaged streetcar accident. Only Sater's Einstein wig left something to be desired.
Dustin Pettigrew's multilevel set with three white boards and a centered door works very well for the vaudeville acts, medical care and dream appearances. Liz Seidt's projections remind us of the horrors of nuclear war and Matt Reich's sound design bring both music and explosive effects.
Playwright Lindner is a Chicago native who holds an MFA in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama. He studied improv at Second City and trained and traveled with a troupe of French clowns. He says the character of Salek is "loosely based" on a relative, professor Severin Raynor, who worked on the Manhattan project and lived in Glencoe, while teaching in the mechanical engineering department at Northwestern. Raynor's wife was a photographer.
Cold Basement Dramatics is one of Chicago's many itinerant theater groups. They express their mission as "telling stories about the things that we hide from ourselves and others." This play, which is all about secrets and regrets, completes their fourth season.
The Half Life of Memory runs two hours with one intermission. It will make you want to go home and refresh your memory of midcentury history. You can see it through June 29 at the DCASE Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St. Tickets are $10-15 and can be purchased online. For more information, see the theater website, which includes a link to an interview with playwright Lindner.