Ian Walker (left) is J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, and Charles Evans is Gen. Leslie R. Groves in Carson Kreitzer’s drama The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a production from San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Co.
`Love Song’ serenades Oppenheimer with magic realism
With a title that echoes T.S. Eliot, you expect a certain intellectual rigor and poetic muscle from Carson Kreitzer’s The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, now in San Francisco courtesy of The Custom Made Theatre Company and artistic director Brian Katz, who is at the helm as director.
And Krietzer’s script doesn’t disappoint on either level. The story of Oppenheimer and his leading role in the development of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II gets a thorough and smart biographical treatment worthy of a world-altering theoretical physicist. To render the story more stage worthy, Kreitzer throws in some melodrama involving a martini-swilling wife and a suicidal lover and she underscores the entire play with a creature prowling the periphery of the stage that turns out to be Lilith, the character of Hebrew myth who pre-dated Eve as Adam’s gal pal.
Frankly speaking, I was bored by the play, just as I was bored by the Oppenheimer/bomb-related stories in John Adams and Peter Sellars’ Doctor Atomic and by the Paul Newman-John Cusack movie Fat Man and Little Boy. I understand the importance and magnitude of the work done in such secrecy in Los Alamos by Oppenheimer and his team of nerdy geniuses, but I just can’t get terribly worked up about scientist guilt. I care a whole lot more about the civilian victims in Japan and the radiation-poisoned land and people of this country, the unwitting victims of the bomb’s development.
Certainly Oppenheimer and Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock have some similarities as they ponder their lives and their places in the universe. As Prufrock says in his famous “Love Song”:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
Oppenheimer, who taught physics at U.C. Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology from the late ’20s to the late ’40s, certainly dared to disturb the universe in a major way, and he spent the rest of his life working to prevent his invention from causing further devastation – we see that in Act 2 of the play along with his battles against Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, who had it in for Oppenheimer’s Commie-loving past.
Though Ian Walker, himself a noted Bay Area playwright, makes for a compelling Oppenheimer, Kreitzer doesn’t surround him with much of interest beyond the explosive advancements in atomic technology. The women in his life remain rather stereotypical, and his co-workers are a blur of sameness.
The one exception is the very thing I thought would be most annoying about the play: Jessica Jade Rudholm(right) as Lilith.
Costumed like a paint-spattered iguana and confined to the jungle gym structure surrounding Cianan Duncan’s set, Rudholm is creepy Jiminy Cricket to Walker’s scientist Pinocchio. Climbing and writhing outside the reality of the story, Lilith interacts with Oppenheimer as he ruminates on his life and work. She’s an evil conscience and he’s both tormented and soothed by her verbal abuse.
What could have been a pretentious bit of nonsense turns out to be the two-hour play’s most compelling device, primarily because Rudholm is so committed to the role that she’s downright scary at times as she castigates Oppie. Equal parts modern dancer, gymnast and demon serpent, Rudholm gets quite a workout, physically and emotionally. She also has a little sense of humor, as evidenced when describing how she was cast from Eden: “God revoked my security clearance.”
The play, for all its seriousness, could use more jolts of humor like that. Kreitzer seems intent on breaking the rules of reality in this re-telling of Oppenheimer’s life, but she never quite breaks the bonds of dullness.
Custom Made’s The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer continues an extended run through May 2 at 965 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-25. Visit www.custommade.org for information.