First, there was math. Then, there was aftermath.
So went the life of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb and subject of Actors Guild of Lexington's latest play, The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Carson Kreitzer.
The play itself is a collision of elements, constructed by equal parts theoretical physics and political history and framed by poetry and religion.
In the middle of all of this is the biography of Oppenheimer himself, a man whose public persona teeters between hero and monster, advisor and traitor, and whose real life struggle to salvage his humanity amidst the fallout from his achievements is as mythic a story as religion or poetry has to offer.
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Director Eric Seale has tailored a theatrical experience that can carry the weight of Kreitzer's heavily ambitious script. Thought-provoking performances are choreographed around an enormous, intricately designed set that cleverly functions as a kind of mish mash of reality and myth. While there is something to be said for simplicity on the stage, there are times when rolling out all of the technical bells and whistles are called for, and this show is one of them. Seale designed the set himself and it is one of the most creative and thematically effective I've seen.
The play covers key periods of Oppenheimer's life, with the first act heavily dedicated to his collaboration with fellow Manhattan Project physicists, many of them German Jews, at the top secret lab in Los Alamos, Calif.
Tom Phillips, who plays Oppenheimer, along with his cast mates Pete Sears, Bob Singleton, and Tommy Gatton as scientific colleagues, does a terrific job capturing the sense of excitement, wonder, and sheer scientific freedom they experienced as they collaborated on the project.
But when the theoretical became practical, Oppenheimer realizes the grave consequences of their research.
Act II is dedicated to not just the political and historic aftermath of the bombs dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but on Oppenheimer's personal descent into his own kind of hell, where he is abhorred by the scale of doom he has made possible with his research, an agony that Phillips conveys with aplomb.
Skirting this narrative are the women of Oppenheimer's life. A lover, Jean, played by Alex Keiper. A wife, Kitty, played by Hayley Williams. And the mythological character Lilith, the first woman God made who was cast out of Eden for wanting parity with Adam.
Both romantic figures had close ties to the communist party, which only further alienated Oppenheimer, who was subject to constant surveillance and interrogation.
Ironically, Lillith is closest to Oppenheimer. Prowling the vaulted framework of the upper perimeter of the stage as Lilith, Joe Fields Elswick twists and turns with acrobatic grace, taunting and menacing Oppenheimer.
Despite an emotionally spirited performance, not to mention a physically exhausting one, there is even more to Lillith that Elswick could explore. More pain, perhaps, beneath the angry veneer. After all, she and Oppenheimer are both utterly alone in their anguish, and the more of that we see, the better.