Regional Reviews: St. Louis
But with the inspiration of co-directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy, the over-the-top rhymes become tolerable through a subtly stylized staging. Brilliant scientists clash with hardheaded military types over idealism and absolute power, as tormented Marvel Comics-type heroes and heroines get us through the preachiest parts of act one. After that, some genuinely fascinating stuff emerges in act two.
The titanic moral struggles of this story are frequently undermined by the authors' "moon/June/spoon" level of song, as great scientists peer into a disturbing future, with little more than a rhyming dictionary as their guide. But brief, heightened dramatic images on stage help legitimize the big arias in little words, by Australians Danny Ginges (book and lyrics) and Philip Foxman (music and lyrics).
Noble warnings and complex emotions are streamlined into the powerful passions of an Incredible Hulk, at least until the atomic bomb is first tested in a blaze of light at the end of act one. After that, a lot of natural, believable humanity and thoughtfulness, in word and song, unexpectedly rise from the ashes. It's almost the reverse of a Marvel Comic story, in fact, where some accident involving radiation usually creates a tormented superhero. Here, after the first bomb test, archetypes are finally cut down to mortal size. It's a big improvement.
But you really have to give credit to the authors on one major point: they bring clarity and thoughtfulness to the complex problems of making the bomb, the terrible pressures to complete the task, and the social issues raised by all of this. Even in act one, great moments emerge again and again.
Zachary Allen Farmer is excellent as a deeply humane Leo Szilard, the Hungarian physicist who first conceived of the nuclear "chain reaction" and also famously orchestrated a meeting between Einstein and FDR to warn of German interest in a fission bomb during World War II. We get a great portrait of a towering intellect and a great heart in Mr. Farmer's performance. (The Einstein/FDR meeting happens off-stage, apparently during intermission.)
Every one of the scientists on stage actually seems like he or she could be a scientist in real life, though Reynaldo Arceno (as Enrico Fermi) has to carry a lot of the volatile conflict on his own in the early scenes when the physicists get to work. He does that very well, but it's later in the second act where he really achieves greatness in acting: jettisoning simplistic drama for something very quiet and intriguing, as the group is falling apart.
Atomic follows Dr. Szilard in and out of (and back into) the Manhattan Project, as a small group of Nobel Prize winning physicists grappled with a huge riddle on a subatomic level without the aid of computers or super-colliders. Conflicts proliferate as Szilard leaves his long-time lover (the outstanding Ann Hier) to participate in A-bomb research. There's really no shortage of compelling performances, but each of their greatest moments come when they're reduced to utter simplicity, in grief or ponderous shame, or in the wake of betrayalwith a lot of emphasis on the last of these.
Ryan Scott Foizey plays Arthur Compton, the scientists' liaison with the Army, in a performance that is elegant, ferocious and iconic. Compton later served as chancellor of Washington University here in St. Louis from 1945 to 1953. And during his tenure, the undergraduate schools were desegregated and the university named its first female full professor. Before that, in Atomic and brainwashed into military lock-step, Compton's level of tension is high, as the nation turned its attention from victory in Europe to eventual victory in Japan, in either the short or long term.
Jeffrey M. Wright is J. Robert Oppenheimer, full of pride and bravado till the very end, when everything's curving back on itself after the horror of Hiroshima. It's in that after-glow that Mr. Wright's own boundless charm turns unexpectedly to self-loathing.
Here, science is the language of the future, holding out the promise of the endless power of the atom. But these scientists will only be listened to when the talk turns to mass-murder. In New Line's staging, it's a time of impossible dreams and impossible choices.
Through June 25, 2016, at the Marcelle Theatre, two blocks east of Powell Hall on Samuel Shepherd Drive. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.org.
The New Line Band
The Artistic Staff