This fascinating and ambitious production takes as its point of departure the life of atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, a powerfully conflicted figure who played a key role in the development of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It examines the historical facts of Oppenheimer’s life in some detail, including his affair with the suicidal communist Jean Tatlock, his marriage to Kitty Oppenheimer-the former wife of another Communist Party member-and his inevitable clashes with Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. It also introduces some poetic and metaphysical contexts in order to give the story another dimension. Deborah Helm, for instance, plays Lilith, the apocryphal first wife of Adam. The role calls for Helm to prowl the set’s tilted, circular runway, a device designed to mimic the orbital structure of the atom. Helm is terrific in this unusual part, delivering several intense monologues with gusto and finding lots of interesting ways to plague and torment Oppenheimer.
Ed Giron plays Oppenheimer with a deft combination of raw energy and self-consciousness. This is a man who knows and fears the profoundly disturbing consequences of his activities, yet can’t resist the challenge of bringing the atomic experiment to its wild and overwhelmingly destructive conclusion. The supporting cast includes Tiffany Story as Oppenheimer’s witty, alcoholic wife Kitty; Jerry Oshinsky as physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi; Michael Manson in an outstanding turn as the Hungarian “father of the hydrogen bomb,” Edward Teller; Dalina Michaels as the lovely, doomed mistress Jean Tatlock; and Alfred St. John Smith in a wide variety of smaller roles. Director Ed Romine has done an excellent job merging playwright Carson Kreitzer’s far-ranging references into a single unified field. The T.S. Eliot poem alluded to in the title, for instance, pops up in a number of places, most memorably when Lilith uses it to mock the misgivings of several characters in the wake of the destruction of Hiroshima.
The show manages to represent a complex and emotionally charged episode in American history in ways that are at once factually responsible and symbolically resonant. These players have now established a significant record of achievement in an interesting niche-imaginative historical dramas.