British playwright Tom Morton-Smith, author of a play about J. Robert Oppenheimer that’s about to get a second run at the RSC in England, told The Observer early this year, “I wanted to make it clear that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the building of the atomic bomb, were very much done by people with real lives and real feelings.” The words could just as well have come from American playwright Jack Karp, whose new play, Irreversible (now being presented by the Red Fern Theatre Company), takes much the same tack. In fact, as Karp tells the tale, the birth of the A-bomb is something of a family affair, attended by Robert; the little-known figure of his younger brother, Frank, also a physicist; Robert’s wife, Kitty; and even his mistress, Jean Tatlock. And the vastly complex Manhattan Project has inescapably personal dimensions for the other two people in the play as well, General Leslie Groves and Niels Bohr.
That Irreversible presents its characters as driven by ordinary human desires is, perhaps, no more than you’d expect. He would be a rare playwright who would attempt to put on the stage, and to sell to the public, the problems of math, science, engineering, and organization that the Manhattan Project confronted. But Karp’s play is really concerned with something other than bringing the wizardry down to earth. It’s more a fantasia on historical and contemporary themes than an exact recreation of history, and it’s more a discussion play than a pure drama. Hence a sneak-away visit that Robert actually paid to Tatlock in 1943 is positioned by Karp within the time frame of summer ’44 through summer ’45 that his play covers; Tatlock, who had been Robert’s lover before he married Kitty, brings up a question of loyalty for purely personal reasons, but the question arises again in other ways. Likewise, a remark that Robert made years later about the prospect of the so-called Super (the H-bomb), that it was “technically sweet,” appears here, as one among many reminders that pure science always exerted a siren call on him. Furthering the point, Robert insists more than once to Frank, who comes to disagree with him, that “Nothing is more important than physics.”
Numerous other themes and subjects, both large and small, emerge as well. In an Act I argument between Robert and Bohr about Werner Heisenberg’s work on the German bomb program, Robert flatly denounces Heisenberg as a “spineless ass” for serving what he sees as the wrong side; Bohr disagrees at length and adds, in a clever allusion to his own complementarity principle, that “A man is never just one thing.” A many-sided debate over whether the weapon should be used occupies much of Act II. Even the modern-day contention over the use of shaky intelligence is echoed here, in a clash between Frank and Robert about whether the German program was ever a serious threat. Karp clearly knows the material, and—though this may sound cavalier—it’s fascinating to see how much he works in.
A good deal of the play consists of simple, straightforward scenes, but Karp varies his presentation. Sometimes Robert stands before the audience and simply speaks his mind, in the manner of a traditional soliloquy; sometimes we’re cast as a gathering of Los Alamos workers to whom he’s addressing his remarks. Now and then, multiple conversations are woven together, in something like an operatic quartet or quintet. Despite all that, and the valiant work of director Melanie Moyer Williams and her cast members—chief among them Jordan Kaplan as Robert and Josh Doucette as Frank—Irreversible comes off as a little too talky, a bit short on dramatic punch and flow.
Nonetheless, the Red Fern production is valuable, for more than one reason. It introduces us to Frank Oppenheimer, who was overshadowed then and later by his brilliant older brother. It invites us to think again about how scientific and military minds operate. And it could hardly be more timely. This year happens to bring one of those nice, round-number anniversaries: the Trinity test and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred 70 years ago. No fission or fusion weapon has been detonated in a conflict since then, yet they’re far from being old news. Talks to limit Iran’s nuclear program are coming up against a March 31 deadline for a draft accord. The March 7 issue of The Economist devoted a lengthy editorial and an even longer briefing to the subject of nuclear weapons. Most alarming was the announcement in January that the Doomsday Clock, an estimate of global threats to civilization, had been advanced to three minutes before midnight, a position it hasn’t held since the saber-rattling days of the mid-80s.