California Repertory Theatre starts its 2011-12 season with a great bang by presenting the internal and external turmoil of the man who brought to life, and death, the most destructive man-made force the 20th Century has ever known, in The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Carson Kreitzer. The Love Song has won Ms. Kreitzer the Rosenthal New Play Prize and the American Theatre Critics Steinberg Citation and has been published in New Playwrights: Best Plays of 2004.
Admittedly, other than a memory of my 10th-grade history teacher informing the class that J. Robert Oppenheimer invented the atomic bomb, I gave little thought to what might have been plaguing the scientific mind of the man who could initiate such a powerful impact on the entire planet. Now, after having seen Cal Rep’s production, I have a thankfully new perspective and sympathy for this brilliant individual in the moment of his greatest triumph. Quoting the Bhagavad Gita, Mr. Oppenheimer laments his thoughts on his legacy by exclaiming, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Entering the intimate theatre aboard The Queen Mary, one is presented with the cold hard steel and complexity of the set for the production, which takes place partially in the military laboratories where the bomb was developed and tested in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and partially within the mind of Mr. Oppenheimer. I had to give the production a little time to get moving before it captured my interest. I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening before me. At first I thought it was going to be a let-down. I thought I was about to be put through a lot of theatrical interpretations and speeches that always go way over my head! Luckily for me, that did not happen. Allow me to explain my moment of confusion by giving just a little information on what turns out to be one of the show’s most interesting elements…
The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer brings to life Lilith, who, in the Hebrew traditions, was the first woman created by God. She is said to have stormed out of the Garden of Eden when asked by Adam to lie down, as she wanted equality with him and not to be treated as a lesser being. Lilith takes her place in the play as a force sent to plague Oppenheimer’s thoughts. She treats her man “Oppie” to awful truths and reflects for him what he is doing by bringing such destruction upon the world. Lilith also forces our title character to realize the destruction he is bringing upon his own relationships with his wife, his mistress, and with himself. Once I had been pulled into the story by these characters, as well as others, in the form of military personnel and Oppenheimer’s fellow scientists, I was hooked.
Craig Anton plays the title role of J. Robert Oppenheimer and brings to him a great sense of compassion and power mixed with a thoughtfulness regarding his plight and his dangerous genius. His performance is enjoyable, and he kept the audience involved in each scene even when he wasn’t the focus of attention. In the end, we felt for Mr. Oppenheimer, and that is a great compliment on an actor’s performance.
One would have to be strong to hold his own on a stage against the character Lilith, the writhing, hissing demon presence in Oppenheimer’s mind, played by a very nimble Cecily Overman. I found myself watching Cecily’s every move as she slinked her way around the stage and fellow actors to keep her focus on torturing our leading man. Lilith is not an easy role to play, and I believe Ms. Overman did a fine job considering the physical movements expected of the role in this production. She was vicious and powerful, and let me just say I am happy to report I have not had Lilith nightmares since I saw the production.
Under the direction of Joanne Gordon, the story is well presented and interesting in its concepts and stylized display. I have to give kudos to the rest of the cast for bringing to the stage a great energy that indicated to me that they enjoyed performing in the production as well as I enjoyed watching it. Other notable performances in the cast to mention are: Jerry Prell as Rabi; Christopher Shaw as Teller; Josh Nathan as Slotin; the scientific minds assisting in the nuclear bomb creation; and Sarah Underwood Saviano as Oppenheimer’s martini-sipping wife, Kitty.
The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer performances are in the Royal Theatre on board The Queen Mary and run Tuesdays through Saturdays from Sept. 23 to Oct. 15 at 8pm. (Exceptions are Oct. 6, 7 , 8, 13, 14 and 15 performances, which are at 6pm.) There is also one matinee performance scheduled at 2pm on Saturday, Sept. 24. Tickets are $20 general admission, and $15 for students, military and seniors (55 and older). For more information call (562) 985-5526 or visit calrep.org.