Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Could the scientists who unleashed the power of the atom ever fully acquit themselves of the dark side of their discoveries? Two of the biggest names in 20th century physics go on the defensive in Copenhagen, about Germany's attempt to build the first atomic bomb. But, like the multi-polarities of quantum physics, the verdict on them both falls somewhere between guilty and not.
Michael Frayn's pensive, cerebral script from 1998 gets a heartfelt revival from St. Loius Actors' Studio at the Gaslight Theatre, directed by Wayne Salomon. As part of the near-mythic 1970s Theater Project Company of St. Louis, Mr. Salomon became one of the trailblazers of modern theater in this town. It's no exaggeration to say he helped set off a chain reaction that led to the scintillating local theatrical community that blazes on today, with very little room for guilt or condemnation. But guilt and condemnation are almost entirely at the root of his latest theatre project.
The two hour and twenty minute show (with one 15 minute intermission) has physicist Werner Heisenberg defending himself before his former friends after being enlisted to help the Nazis in the race to generate enough Uranium-235 to destroy a city in World War II. Of course the Americans got there first. But Frayn's play suggests things could have been different, without a research management style that employed a kind of bureaucratic version of his own uncertainty principle.
The play gains a tormented humanity from authentic and endearing performances. And Copenhagen crystallizes beautifully in the end, thanks to actors Joel Moses (smiling but tortured as Heisenberg), Aaron Orion Baker (courtly but incredulous as Niels Bohr), and Lizi Watt, as Bohr's piercing and dour wife Margrethe, who also narrates the story.
The trio speaks to us from an afterlife and urgently reenacts scenes from the 1930s and '40s on Patrick Huber's elegant set, which suggests the glowing interior of an atom. Three or four literary devices, cleverly scattered throughout Frayn's script, bond together in the final moments for an unexpectedly satisfying conclusion.
There's an old Soviet-era joke about the space race to put a man on the moon. "How did the Americans get there first?" the set-up goes. The Russian punch-line is, "their Germans were smarter than our Germans." It's the same here. But in Copenhagen, they're not all Germans: Bohr was a Dane, and at one point he and Heisenberg describe an entire European continent ablaze with a scientific ferment that ended around 1939.
Many of those physicists fled to America, where Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner got Albert Einstein to persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to start the Manhattan Project. (The recurring theme here, of persecuted minorities fleeing extremist governments, rings out as a warning to us amidst our own rise in extremism.) And back in Germany, Heisenberg is left with a team of Nazi sympathizers who don't fully understand the science.
It's a very talky play, though, and the verbal tonalities are a bit one-note, pensive, and imploring, with a lot of "direct address" in Act One. I wish they'd each find a place to break out of that, with Heisenberg perhaps shrieking briefly, uncontrollably, imagining his own family burning to death in the phosphorus bombings in Berlin in World War II, while his own shoes were ablaze with the fiery chemical (which is recounted in Act Two, I believe). Set designer Huber invented the remarkably subtle light plot here. It does a lot to change the chemistry of the play from scene to scene.
We watch as the characters strike together like particles in an accelerator, taking on unbearable mass or releasing flashes of insight–as when Heisenberg himself makes a mad dash for it, fleeing Germany near the end of the war. In that life-or-death instance on a darkened country road, every action takes on unknowable significance: before the elementary forces of an historical moment can fully be reckoned with.
Copenhagen runs through February 25, 2024, at Gaslight Theatre, 360 N. Boyle Avenue, St. Louis MO. For tickets and more information, please call 314-458-2978 or visit www.stlas.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association