The Union of Concerned Scientists keep reassessing how many minutes away from nuclear annihilation we all are. The last I heard it was moved back to eight. This concern with Armageddon can be traced to the discovery of uranium. Alan Brody’s riveting exploration of the men who toiled to isolate and split those isotopes, is called OPERATION EPSILON. His intriguing play is getting a smashing world premiere at the Nora Theatre Company this month (through April 28th).
Most Americans are familiar with the Manhattan Project and the first atomic detonation at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Much has been written about the scientists and their trepidations, once they grasped the enormity of the destruction. Robert Oppenheimer read from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” as they readied the blast. Enrico Fermi, it is said, made side bets that the explosion would set off a cataclysmic chain reaction around the world.
We know the Allied side of the story but little about the German scientists working toward the same goal. Thanks to Brody’s gripping new play (based on Allied documents) we witness the engineers and physicists who worked “for the regime” racing (and sabotaging each other) to be the first German scientist to produce a “uranium machine” or as the British Major (an officious but civil Barlow Adamson) interjects, “We call it a reactor.”
Brody sets the play toward the end of the war, with ten German scientists under Allied house arrest in a lovely English country home with spacious grounds, gracious amenities and even a piano for music lover Werner Heisenberg. They’re all anxious about when they’ll be able to go home but one of the most contentious of the group complains that the house is a concentration camp. We are immediately shocked and horrified that he would have the arrogance to compare the hospitality he’s been afforded to Dachau. Brody never enumerates the unspeakable tortures in the death camps but with this insult from Mr. Bagge (Kendall Hodder as the nastiest of Nazis), he ingeniously sends our thoughts there.
The scientists berate each other for holding up funding or for holding on to antiquated ideas or for keeping research secret. Heisenberg (a calming Diego Arciniegas) suggests they need “an open exchange of ideas.” Instead he’s met with demands for an apology by Kurt Diebner (a hot headed Own Doyle) for refusing to recognize his contributions. Each scientist is a distinct personality brought to vibrant life by a remarkable ensemble of actors. Robert D. Murphy’s Gerlach quietly works in the garden, declaring himself “an expert at making do.” Ross MacDonald’s Korsching is a bundle of nerves, a cornered animal ready to bare his teeth.
Dan Whelton’s young, edgy von Weizsacher never misses the chance to bully Ken Baltin’s senior scientist and outsider, for not having worked on “the machine.” Director Andy Sandberg creates lots of small intrigues for us to decipher and one big one, whether Heisenberg simply erred on his calculations or did so on purpose: the latter would certainly get him a better reception from his captors. And Brody gives us the moral question of the century. Should they have left Germany when they knew what Hitler was doing? Should they have tried to stop him? Refused to work on the bomb? As Baltin’s von Laue sees it: “There is no high ground on this moral dung heap.”
One of the saddest and most moving scenes in the play takes place in the Major’s office, when he informs Otto Hahn, the eminent director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, the man who first achieved nuclear fission, that the Americans have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Will Lyman gives a breathtaking performance, distraught that it actually happened and convinced that “he” alone is responsible. If he hadn’t split that atom’s nucleus, there would be no atomic energy and no fission bomb. Brody has written Hahn’s part so beautifully, that your heart goes out to him, sobbing for the 300,000 Japanese incinerated in one single moment – of course, none of the scientists are mourning the eight million Jews, gypsies and homosexuals murdered in the camps.
Brody’s endlessly fascinating play ends with a letter, like a sweet coda to a piece of tumultuous music, gently and softly read by Lyman. It comes from a Jewish colleague who, with Hahn’s help, got of out Germany in time. She asks something of him, of her fellow scientists, something to help their consciences. End of play.
Would they comply? I think Hahn might have done, but not the others. This is a play I can’t stop thinking about. That’s the highest of praise.