Sunday, October 7, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Fission Vision at Flat Earth

FLAT EARTH THEATRE, despite its playfully antediluvian name, is carving out a niche for itself, discovering lovely plays about women of science. DELICATE PARTICLE LOGIC by Jennifer Blackmer (pulsing through Oct. 13th) places atomic physicist Lise Meitner (a tour de force by Christine Power) at the epicenter of the unearthing of nuclear fission… for which her male laboratory partner, the noted chemist Otto Hahn (a solid Thomas Grenon) received the Nobel Prize. (You may remember Flat Earth’s extraordinary production of SILENT SKY from last season, about the women of the Harvard Observatory who weren’t credited for the stars they discovered.)

In Blackmer’s ingenious memory play, Meitner and Hahn join forces to find the next new element… and beat out the rest of the field, which included Enrico Fermi, for the bragging rights. Everyone, it seems, was bombarding radium and uranium to find heretofore unknown heavier elements. Meitner suggested to Hahn that what they were, or rather, weren’t seeing, were lighter elements emerging with unstable centers, and those center nuclei would yield infinite energy when bombarded. Please insert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity here because I, not being a scientist, can only grasp that splitting these molecules creates fission and fission is essential for a very, very large explosion… like the horrific bombs unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is now widely accepted that Meitner and Hahn should have shared in the accolades. Blackmer ingeniously places Meitner in the center of a tiny emotional sphere as well, with Hahn and his wife (a glorious performance from Barbara Douglass) swirling in various combinations. We first meet Edith Hahn in a sanitarium of sorts, where she has been committed for hurling a vase at her husband! When she is visited by Meitner, the two reminisce as if they were old friends. We’re given several versions of the past to choose from, charming recreations, which, like Edith’s water colors, float in undulating memory pools.

Blackmer is extremely kind to Hahn, painting him as an affectionate lab partner to Meitner, even helping her escape from the Nazis. However, the playwright intimates that the two may have been more. Meitner calls him Hahnchen, the “chen” indicating intimacy, perhaps only ‘wished for’ on her part. And he may have been nudged, the playwright hints, to accept sole ownership of the Nobel. You decide once you’ve weighed all the dramatic evidence. That’s what’s so fascinating about Blackmer’s play, that all this information has been filtered through time and fragile recollections.

Director Betsy S. Goldman’s shimmering production is enhanced exponentially by Christine A. Banna’s dancing projections (from sparkling snow to theoretical formulae which flow right over the actors) and PJ Strachman’s shadowy, evocative lighting. Kudos to Flat Earth for again offering performances with American Sign Language interpreters.

As I was leaving the theater, bemoaning Meitner’s fate, a friend reminded me of the wonderful Nobel news of last week. Even as half the Senate was dismissing a woman’s testimony and embracing a judge’s lies, two women were recognized by the worldwide scientific community. Frances H. Arnold (and two men) won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Donna Strickland won the Nobel for Physics. Flat Earth Theatre calls us to remember all the women who have stood up over the centuries. Thanks, Flat Earth.