“…Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.”
Philadelphia’s popular end-of-summer celebration of the arts, the Fringe Fest (aka Fringe Arts) is expanding beyond the city limits. Exclamation Theater has taken up residence in Wallingford’s Stage One Performing Arts Center to present a new work about the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” entitled “ ‘…THE RAGS OF TIME…’: J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER” (punctuation the author’s, not mine).
My research showed me that Oppenheimer was a very complex man. A man of contradictions. He grew up in a wealthy family on the Upper East Side of New York City, but loved the simplicity of his ranch in New Mexico or (later) his home in the Virgin Islands. He was an avowed atheist, though Jewish by heritage; the family rejected the tenets of their faith, opting to follow the teachings of the Ethical society: “Deed before Creed.” Throughout his life, Oppenheimer battled severe depression, once telling his brother Frank that “I need physics more than friends.” Yet some colleagues considered him a friendly, gregarious man oftentimes. He suffered bouts of tuberculosis throughout his adult life, but was a chain smoker. Though married, he carried on a long-term affair with another woman. He had a scientist’s laser focus on his work and yet he learned several languages and read a broad range of literature. Apolitical in his early life, he was instrumental in the creation of the world’s most destructive weapon, the atom bomb, which gave the US the ability to end World War II and become the predominant power globally. Yet, after seeing the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer became a very vocal proponent of preventing nuclear proliferation. He was so outspoken (especially during the McCarthy Era) that his government security clearance was revoked. He died from throat cancer in early 1967.
Ruch’s script is a series of memory sequences that briefly cover much of what I’ve mentioned, but it never really digs into any of it. Oppenheimer was a man of contradictions, but so is this script. One actor, playing Oppenheimer (an atheist) spends 75 minutes primarily talking to God. It doesn’t make sense. The playwright specified there be no intermission so the audience would remain “inside the play.” Well, there should have been more direct address to that audience in my opinion. Also, I personally think a piece about the moral struggle of whether to develop the atom bomb or not would have been much more compelling. It would be fascinating to gain insight into the conversations that took place amongst these scientists. “ ‘…THE RAGS OF TIME…’: J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER” does allude to the fact that Oppenheimer was proud of his work. He sincerely felt by dropping those bombs on Japan, the war ended and many lives were saved. But that is only a small moment in “ ‘…THE RAGS OF TIME…’: J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER”. Taken as a whole, I find it hard to grasp what Ruch’s point is, what message he is trying to convey.
John B. Comegno makes an admirable attempt to handle this extended monologue, to mixed effect. Having done extended monologues myself, I know what a challenge it is for the actor. Comegno acts the emotions necessary, but there was nothing visceral about it, nothing feels like it’s gotten down into his gut. In addition, everything is delivered at the same level; he speaks to family and lovers in pretty much the same manner as he does to colleagues and students. Human beings inherently change inflection, timbre and speed depending on the circumstances; I’ve drummed this into actors I’ve directed. At the top and end of the piece, Oppenheimer is supposed to be within weeks of his death, but we see none of the ravages of cancer that would be evident in his voice and movement. This is a challenge actors thrive on—to take on varying physicalities, even better to convey it without make-up. As a result of this lack of inventiveness, one sees no difference when he flashes back to act out portions of Oppenheimer’s past.
Perhaps all of the above were directorial choices, it’s hard to tell. I don’t think Ruch’s convoluted script helped however….I do feel director Patricia L. Robinson-Linder made some odd staging choices. The piece plays on the floor of Stage One’s mid-sized auditorium—which is good, as a one-man show needs intimacy. However, Exclamation has placed their simple set too close. The plain black wall of flats runs across the space right under the bar of lighting instruments, and only three of those instruments are focused on the playing space. There are two light trees placed on the back wall of the auditorium, on either side of the two rows of seats, but these each have only four instruments on them. The general effect was not enough intense light focused on the actor, and numerous moments when he was in shadow. I also wished there had been more music and sound supporting the piece throughout. The only atmospheric noise was the sound of ocean waves for a sequence on the beach in the Virgin Islands.
I am truly a lover of theatre and try my best to support the arts in general, but I also have to be honest and admit I was underwhelmed by this production. Perhaps it will gain some depth as the run progresses—you have until September 14th to find out for yourselves. Check it out and get back to me with your thoughts….
“ ‘…THE RAGS OF TIME…’: J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER”
by A.S. Ruch
Directed by Patricia L. Robinson-Linder
September 4—14, 2014
@ Stage One Performing Arts Center
101 Plush Mill Road
Fringe Box Office, (215) 413-1318