Sunday, March 17, 2013

Blown Away by The Nora Theatre Company's Production of "Operation Epsilon" at The Central Square Theater

Today marked my first visit to the Central Square Theater on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.  It will not be my last visit.  The occasion that lured me to Central Square was a World Premiere performance of Professor Alan Brody's groundbreaking play, "Operation Epsilon."  This was also my first opportunity to see a play produced by one of the two resident theater companies, The Nora Theatre Company.  The moment I walked into the auditorium and took my seat, I knew that I was in for a memorable afternoon of theater.  The building is a world class, state-of-the-art facility.  Central Square Theater is a unique collaboration between two non-profit professional theater companies – The Nora Theatre Company (The Nora) and Underground Railway Theater (URT) – with a combined track record of 50 years of excellence in producing theater and educational programming for the Greater Boston community.

The seats were comfortable, the theater was filled with a multi-generational mix of theater aficionados abuzz with anticipation.  In the few moments before the action of the play commenced, I was able to feast my eyes on the sumptuous set that had been designed by award winning Janie E. Howland.  First class all the way.

The play has an interesting pedigree.  It arose from conversations that had taken place beginning in 2004 among Professor Brody and other denizens of his regular Salon.  For most of the past decade, the playwright/professor and colleague Alan Lightman ran informal monthly gatherings of scientists and playwrights on the MIT campus.  They dubbed the gatherings “The Science on Stage Salons.”  Brody began to investigate the history of the detention of Germany’s top physicists following the surrender of the German forces in 1945.  A key source for his ideas in the play came from his reading and research of Jeremy Bernstein’s “Hitler’s Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall,” based on transcripts of bugged conversations among ten of Germany’s top nuclear scientists while they were being held as prisoners of war at a mansion in the British countryside at the close of World War II.  Early staged readings of the play have been performed over the past few years, and this fully staged version and World Premiere was developed through Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, an initiative that believes that science and the arts can, and must, work together.

(Spoiler Alert: Some plot elements revealed below)

The play is a revelation on many levels.  The scientists were held captive for six months in England in hopes that the British would be able to learn secrets from eavesdropping on the conversations.  How much had the Germans learned about the Americans' efforts to build an atomic bomb?  How close had Germany come to creating such a weapon?

In the hands of a less adroit playwright and a less gifted ensemble cast, the subject matter could have felt pedantic and arcane.  This was not the case.  The audience sat riveted as initially the scientists swapped theories about isotope separation, heavy water, Uranium isotope half-lives and complex formulae.  As the play and the six months of incarceration progressed, the discussions became more heated and at the same time more philosophical.  How could these brilliant scientists, including two eventual Nobel laureates, rehabilitate their reputations after having served the Third Reich and Hitler?  What could they do?  What kind of statement could they make?  At one point, the action and conversation became so animated that the physicists seemed like errant electrons colliding with one another and throwing off sparks.  The level of conversation and conflict took a quantum leap into the realm of ethics when one of the characters, Dr. Max von Laue, talked about the need for them to face the painful fact that they had chosen to stay in German and to serve the Reich.  The elephant in the room had been named, and there is no turning back.

Brody has written a brilliant play that jumps back and forth between scientific minutiae and broad ethical issues.  The conflicting personalities, philosophies, value systems and levels of personal ambition finally reach critical mass, and all hell breaks loose.  Each character is developed so that we sense their individuality shining through their corporate guilt and shame.  With the ambitious Dr. Werner Heisenberg at the nucleus of the action, it is no wonder that the group’s future and course of action is fraught with uncertainty!

The dramatic arc of the story makes the audience members wish that they had fastened tightly their proverbial emotional seat belts.  There is a touching moment near the end of the second act in which there takes place a stunning reconciliation between Carl-Friederich Von Weizsacker, a young maverick disciple of Dr. Heisenberg, and von Laue, an older maven whom he has despised and abused for more than six months.  Just when it feels that this complex tale will end on a high note, a letter arrives from a Jewish colleague who had escaped to Sweden before the worst atrocities of the Holocaust.  Expecting congratulations on winning the Nobel Prize, Dr. Otto Hahn is stunned when he reads a scathing “j’accuse” screed excoriating him and his colleagues for sharing blame with Hitler for the atrocities of the Third Reich by their inaction and failure to protest what they knew were inhuman abuses being perpetrated.  Blackout!

The play artfully raises complex moral questions for which there are no simple answers.  In a poignant exchange between their British captor, Major Rittner and Heisenberg, the scientist exclaims:  “If you think the truth is that simple, you’ve been around the Americans too long!”

Under the inspired direction of Andy Sandberg, the cast members are universally professional and plausible.  
They are:
Barlow Adamson as Major Rittner
Diego Arciniegas as Heisenberg
Ken Baltin as von Laue
Owen Doyle as Kurt Diebner
Kendall Hodder as Erich Bagge
Jon Kool as Karl Wirz
Will Lyman as Otto Hahn
Ross MacDonald as Horst Korschling
Allan Mayo as Paul Harteck
Robert D. Murphy as  Walther Gerlach
Dan Whelton as von Weizsacker

 The audience today included a number of budding scientists - MIT students who had been urged to attend the play and to write about their reactions to the issues.  It is encouraging to see science and art co-mingling so forcefully on the MIT campus.  How fitting it is that this examination of ethics and science should take place only 0.4 miles (according to Google Maps!) from the building that houses MIT’s own nuclear reactor lab.

This play should be considered a “Must See.”  I expect that it will have opportunities to grow beyond the confines of Cambridge to challenge audiences worldwide.




By Alan Brody
Directed by Andy Sandberg
March 7 – April 28, 2013
World Premiere
Presented by The Nora Theatre Company
a project of Catalyst Collaborative@MIT

Operation Epsilon website


John said...

Phenomenal Blog post. Thank you. The play captured the two vectors of ambition and morality that pulled the characters apart, like protons when the nuclear force can no longer contain them.

I'd also recommend.

Henry H. Wortis said...

Excellent commentary on a superb and important play. However, I think that you should either edit your plot description or post a spoiler alert at the beginning.

The White Rhino said...

Good point. I have inserted a spoiler alert.