A name that inspires both admiration and controversy, J. Robert Oppenheimer attained fame in physics and military history – a strange combination that grew out of the stress and fears piling up as World War II wore on. Playwright Tom Morton-Smith weaves esoteric science, personal peccadillos, and ethical conundrums into a fascinating study of a man who is torn between patriotism, doing the right thing, making scientific advances, and building his own career.
Does the end justify the means? This is a question which Oppenheimer faces every day. For this is a man who has immersed himself in ideological liberalism as a young man – best exemplified in his day as socialist/communist. Eventually, these personal preferences had to be divorced completely from his professional life. In the late 1930’s, Oppenheimer (or Oppie, as his friends called him) surrounds himself with devoted Communists and fellow-travelers. In fact, the play opens with him holding a party in his residence to raise money for the Spanish Communists fighting Fascism. The goal may have been serious, but Oppie (James Liebman) and his buddies meet the task with jollity, including song and dance. But these armchair liberals might occasionally be diverted by their very serious Commie pals. Even Oppie’s brother Frank (Ryan Brophy) and sister-in-law Jackie (Miranda Wynne) seem more devoted to “the cause” than Oppenheimer.
In fact, Oppenheimer seems immersed in his head, with algorithms and formulae spinning around most of the time. Meanwhile, Oppie’s scientific community rolls along with brilliant ideas without much application in the real world – until they discover that their German counterparts seem to be working on converting esoteric thoughts into a very practical use – taking the concept of atomic fission and building a bomb that will destroy their enemies. Galvanized into action, Oppenheimer cherry picks his team and begins to work in earnest on beating the Germans at their own game. As he enters into the near-impossible task of winning the competition, he has the help of a reluctant General Leslie Groves (Ron Bottita), tasked with herding a bevy of scientific cats into practical action.
Author Morton-Smith has crafted a fascinating study of a cipher, a man who guards his core from the events in his life, both professional and personal. Add to Oppie’s woes his erratic love life – enmeshed at different times with unpredictable, excitable psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Kirsten Kollender) and his colleague’s wife Kitty Harrison (Rachel Avery), who eventually becomes his wife. And all of this tumultuous fluff happens while he’s trying to make the scientific discovery of the decade.
Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s scenic design is fluid, allowing (as it must) for over 60 scenes in the two-act play. Changes fold into each other in madcap movement from scene to scene. Talented and energetic director John Perrin Flynn clearly has his hands full guiding the 24 actors through the maze that is OPPENHEIMER.
OPPENHEIMER is a play that everyone should see – both for its content and for its theatricality. It may be long (over 2 ½ hours), but the author is forgiven. How else can he document the stressful years between 1929 and 1945 filled with the tumultuous wartime atmosphere as the race for the bomb explodes into reality? The gaiety of characters at the beginning of OPPENHEIMER may seem forced, and the physical manifestation of complex scientific formulae may seem silly – but together they are guaranteed to whet the audience’s appetite for more. OPPENHEIMER is a thought-provoking piece of theater that will be remembered long after the final curtain.
OPPENHEIMER runs through December 30, 2018, with performances at 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Mondays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. No performances on 10/8, 10/28 at 3 p.m. or on 11/12, 11/17, 11/26, 12/1, 12/2, 12/8, 12/9, 12/10, or 12/24. Added performances at 8 p.m. on Friday (10/26 and 11/12) and Sunday (10/28). The Rogue Machine performs in the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Avenue, Venice CA 90291. Tickets are $40. For information and reservations, call 855-585-5185 or go online.