Bob Bradley, who directed Springfield Contemporary Theatre’s new production of Tom Morton-Smith’s drama “Oppenheimer,” said he was inspired to look for a play on the subject of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb while attending a production of another major recent treatment of the subject: John Adams’s award-winning 2005 opera “Doctor Atomic.”
Dr. Bradley had traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico to see Santa Fe Opera’s production of “Doctor Atomic,” which he said is probably his “favorite” contemporary opera.
“And so I’m sitting in the Santa Fe Opera,” in their open-air theater with its panoramic views of two mountain ranges. “I’m looking across at the plateau, and then over on the other (side), about ten miles away, and I realized, ‘That’s Los Alamos! I’m only ten miles from the place where this opera is taking place!’ So that put me in the frame of mind to start thinking about J. Robert Oppenheimer”—specifically, to think about directing a stage play on the subject. “I knew of a couple of plays, and had copies of each of those and read them. And I was talking to Rick Dines, the Artistic Director at SCT, and Rick said, ‘I think I have a new play that you should read.’”
That new play was “Oppenheimer” by British playwright Tom Morton-Smith, which was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-On-Avon, England early in 2015. Three years later it was performed for the first time in North America by a theater company in Venice, California. And now comes Springfield Contemporary Theatre with what Bradley believes to be only the third production of the play, ever.
Some historical background, courtesy of Springfield Contemporary Theatre’s description of Morton-Smith’s play: as fascism spread across Europe in the 1930s, two German chemists discovered the process of atomic fission. Meanwhile in Berkeley, California, theoretical physicists there recognized the horrendous potential of the new science: a new weapon that drew its power from the very building blocks of the universe. J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the Berkeley physicists, won the “battle of the laboratories” race with the Germans to create a weapon harnessing nuclear power, as part of the top-secret “Manhattan Project.”
Bradley admitted that "Oppenheimer" is by no means an easy play to produce. “In fact, I have 18 actors in the production”—and this, in the intimate space of SCT Center Stage. “Oppenheimer,” Bradley said, “is written in what is usually called a ‘Brechtian Theater’ style”—a reference to German theatrical playwright and theoretician Berthold Brecht (1898-1956)—“who laid out a style in which he said, ‘Theater is for the brain. Theater is to make you think. Theater is for issues.” Not that theater shouldn’t be enjoyable or emotionally involving. “But Brecht always wanted to say at some point, ‘Wait a minute. Back out of this. Think about what you are seeing. Look at it more objectively. Look at what issues are being presented here.’”
One of his actors is Eli Cunningham, portraying the title role and doing it “superbly,” according to Bob Bradley. Cunningham agreed with Bradley that “Oppenheimer” is “a very complex piece, and (Oppenheimer) is a very complex person. So I think it’s fitting.” Oppenheimer was deeply conflicted by his work on this devastating new weapon. “He has a line in the play where he says ‘This is not a question of “should”… it’s a question of when, of where, and by whom.’ And he also has this guilt, and he talks about ‘the chalk dust on [his] hands has been replaced by blood.’” Was Oppenheimer in the right place at the right time—or the wrong time? Eli Cunningham seems to feel the question could go either way. Working on the character, said Cunningham, “has been very, very interesting, and you’re always finding these new moments of how he’s carrying this burden, or how he’s just brazenly running past these warnings or obstacles.”
Bob Bradley elaborated on Oppenheimer’s personal sense of urgency, and even competitiveness, in his work on the atom bomb. “He knows the bomb has to be created,” because the fear at the time was that the Germans would develop one before American scientists did. “When they get to Los Alamos, he is not at all sure how far along the Germans are. We forget this was 1942, ’43, up to the Bomb in 1945. And Oppenheimer also knew that the Germans had, of course, (theoretical physicist Werner) Heisenberg. And he considered Heisenberg, really, superior to himself. The Germans might well solve this problem of creating this bomb before (Oppenheimer) and his people could get to it. We forget how close they were, or how close we thought they were, to doing this bomb. And this is one of the things the play gets involved in.”
Of course, the atomic bomb wasn’t used against Nazi Germany, because Germany surrendered in May 1945. “And then came, again, the question—and this is, again, one of the questions that gets raised in the play as it was raised in real life”: the question of whether or not to use atomic weapons against Japan. “And then, of course, it was (U.S. President Harry S.) Truman who made the decision. And while this is not a part of the play, it’s very much a part of history. When Truman became President after the sudden death of (Franklin D.) Roosevelt, as Vice-President he didn’t even know, he was not even aware that this bomb was being developed. It was so secret, so unknown at that point. He had to be brought up to speed. So it was Truman who made the decision: we will use it on Japan. We will save thousands of American soldiers’ lives by doing this.” The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. By the end of the year well over 100,000 Japanese citizens had died as a result. “And that becomes one of the great moral dilemmas,” said Bradley.
J. Robert Oppenheimer had a good idea of the sort of devastation such a weapon could cause, said Eli Cunningham, which created a great deal of moral conflict for him. “He talks about how he accepts the ‘weight of the Japanese’ on his back. If he has brought atomic power to the world, if he has nullified war, then he welcomes it. But he feels that he’s left a loaded gun on a playground.
“And,” added Cunningham, Oppenheimer had “a unique relationship with the women in his life. His wife, Kitty, is sort of his rock in that way. She helps him like, ‘No, no, you are going to do this. You will be hailed as a hero.’”
Bob Bradley brought up another source of conflict for Robert Oppenheimer that appears in Tom Morton-Smith’s play: the Hungarian-American theoretical physicist Edward Teller. “One of the continual discussions that happen between Oppenheimer and Teller is, Teller wants to develop a greater bomb—and of course, in the later 1940s, Teller did, with the hydrogen bomb. But throughout the play they keep arguing. Teller says, ‘Let’s create this bigger bomb,’ and Oppenheimer keeps saying, ‘No, we’re doing the atomic bomb, we’re not doing your bomb!’”
That brought up a question about humorous elements in the play. Not only humor, said Bob Bradley, but “there’s music, there’s song. Do you know ‘Goodbye Mama, I’m Off To Yokahoma’? or ‘Der Führer’s Face’? That is one of the Brechtian techniques. Brecht would very deliberately put songs or music in, to suddenly jar you as an audience member, and go, ‘Wait a minute—where did this come from?’ And we have dance. We have all kinds of things going on in this production!”
The production opens Friday and Saturday Feb.14 and 15 at 7:30pm, with receptions following each show. Tonight’s reception will be Valentine-themed, even though, as Bradley readily admitted, “This may not be a Valentine’s play, but tonight’s reception will be champagne and chocolates.”
Then the schedule runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm through March 1st. The two Thursday shows are "Pay What You Can" for any tickets available as of 6:30pm. Otherwise opening weekend is $22, with other performances ranging from $24-$27. There will be a post-performance Talkback with the director and cast following the Sunday Feb.23rd show. For tickets call 831-8001 or visit https://www.sgftheatre.org.