The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer

From 02/07/2003 to 03/02/2003


THE LOVE SONG OF J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER imagines a spirited conversation, a wrestling match, an argument between Lilith–an archetypal figure in Hebrew mythology (the first woman God created), who was cast out when she couldn?t behave and was replaced by Eve?and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the atomic bomb, a Jew who was also cast out, losing his security clearance by the U.S. government after he had created the tool they needed to stop Hitler.


The reviews are in.

“Frank Theatre’s premiere of Carson Kreitzer’s The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a winding, poetic meditation on passion, morality, science, betrayal, and lots of other decidedly un-atomic concepts. Phil Kilbourne portrays Oppenheimer, the physicist who spent the latter half of WWII holed up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he led an enormous team of scientists in designing, building, and testing the first atomic bomb. Though dressed in a drab sack suit, Kilbourne’s Oppenheimer is as elegant as the Duke of Windsor: He speaks with graceful pensiveness, effortlessly quotes John Donne and the Bhagavad Gita, and waxes charming during a cocktail-party seduction.

“Under the direction of Wendy Knox, Oppenheimer’s life (and the history that surrounds it) is recounted in a nonlinear and sometimes playful manner, with oversized props and often cartoonish supporting characters. The action takes place in and around a giant sandbox, which both evokes the New Mexico desert and the desolate aftermath of the scientist’s atomic-energy innovations. Throughout, Oppenheimer endures the taunting of Lilith (Maria Asp), the spooky yet sexy primeval woman said in some Jewish mythology to have come before Eve. Oppenheimer’s communist associations and objections to the development of the hydrogen bomb made him scholar non grata in the blacklisting ’50s, and we see him constantly questioning the morality of his actions.

“For Lilith, though, his quiet remorse is not enough; she doggedly torments him while skulking around the scaffolding that nearly surrounds the stage, graphically reminding him of his complicity and putting his postwar persecution in the context of same-old-same-old anti-Semitism.

“The play is at its best when Oppenheimer interacts with his hissing accuser and in the scenes with Oppie’s martini-tipping wife Kitty (Annie Enneking). In comparison, the scenes of straighter historical narrative seem hamfisted: Kreitzer is at her best when she unearths the scientist’s life with a trowel instead of bunker buster.”

–Dylan Hicks, City Pages

“We live in a world powered by fury. Daily headlines certainly proclaim this with cool starkness.¬†Playwright Carson Kreitzer proclaims it with artful elegance in “The Love Song of J. Robert¬†Oppenheimer,” receiving a well-wrought world premiere by Frank Theatre.

“Oppenheimer led the team of physicists at Los Alamos, N.M., that developed the atomic bomb during World War II. He recommended that the only viable way to test the weapon was to drop it –as a surprise — on Hiroshima. As he recedes into history, Oppenheimer has become a symbol for many artists. For good or ill, he personifies humanity’s scientific and moral evolution.

“Kreitzer’s play delves into a fascinating facet of Oppenheimer: his Jewishness. She proposes that for him, creating the bomb was all about taking vengeance on “One little German man with a mustache.”

“Kreitzer points out that Oppenheimer pushed himself so hard that his weight dropped to 115 pounds. “Only hate burns that bright,” she says.

Under the idiosyncratic grip of director Wendy Knox, the production oozes absurdist melancholy. The character of Oppenheimer, played by Phil Kilbourne, is presented realistically. Frumpy and stoic, Kilbourne is totally engaging as he murmurs a series of quiet monologues that take the audience through Oppenheimer’s childhood, dreams, hatreds and regrets.

“He is surrounded by a production that dances (literally, at times) with clownish scientists, oversized cardboard props, calculating and dehumanized G-men, an ever-drunk wife (a touchingly mordant Annie Enneking) and a tragically gorgeous mistress (an alluringly depressive Gwendolyn Schwinke). Lilith, a wild-haired demon from Jewish myth (capably embodied by Maria Asp), prowls the scaffolding above and behind Oppenheimer, cajoling him like a hellish Jiminy Cricket. The absurdities often draw mild laughter and frequently create an uncanny sadness.

“John Francis Bueche has designed a striking set that uses a 20-by-30-foot box of sand, with the skeletal legs of a tall metal tower placed centrally. It is at once the New Mexico desert, the Los Alamos laboratory, humanity’s malicious playground, the decimated earth, the bareness of Oppenheimer’s emotional life and, perhaps, even the ash-covered floor of the ovens at Auschwitz.

“Absurd elements in a play can infuse a psychic darkness, but they do not do that in this production. Rather, the ridiculous moments tend to lighten the play, surely keeping the work off balance, but in the least effective way. If Kreitzer can find the right mix between the darkly ridiculous and sublimely frightening, she may be able to produce a chain reaction that can make this play light up.”

–Jaime Meyer, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Frank Theatre and playwright Carson Kreitzer always embrace provocative themes with a bold ambiguity and complex character development, leaving audiences with more questions than answers. The Lovesong of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a searing kaleidoscope of history, myth and philosophical/psychological contradictions, swirling around the father of the atomic bomb. With poetic realism and gripping drama, Kreitzer relates the WWII Manhattan Project and its ramifications through 1950s communist witch-hunts and the nuclear arms race.

“Phil Kilbourne plays Oppenheimer with disarming nuance, patiently peeling away scientific calm, exposing a complicated core of raw, unhealed wounds. It’s a tour de force performance that haunts. Jewish identity and assimilation’s cost; emotion versus intellect; ethics pitted against ambition; awe battling with arrogance are spun by Kilbourne’s embodiment, like slow-motion exploding atoms. Sidestepping easy conclusions of men’s technology gone mad, Kreitzer creates an angry anima for Oppenheimer through Lilith, the first woman God created in Hebrew myth, rejected by Adam for her lack of submissiveness. Giving a primal performance, Maria Asp vaporizes any assumptions of women’s peaceful nature. A Cassandra conscience, seething over betrayal, with barely-contained rage, Asp verges on a Kali rampage. She and Kilbourne are beveled mirrors to one another in a dance of terrifying fascination. Do we dare to look into their fractured glass and see our own contradicted selves?

“The play brims with a dizzying array of historical figures (with acrobatic multiple-roles played by most of the cast): Oppenheimer?s competitor/colleague Edward Teller (inventor of the hydrogen bomb), is played with manic zeal by John Reidlinger. Tom Sherohman has amazing acting agility, portraying refugee scientist Isador Rabi, General Groves and J.Edgar Hoover. Annie Enneking plays Oppenheimer?s wife, Kitty, with a wise-cracking worldliness worthy of Dorothy Parker, that makes you covet her invitation to afternoon cocktails. Gwendolyn Schwinke isn’t given enough to do, glimpsed in dual roles as Oppenheimer’s Red mistress and his mother. Her characters’ sketchiness is Kreitzer’s only off-key note.

“Director Wendy Knox stages the play like a nuclear meltdown in progress. She choreographs visceral physicality into a play of ideas, carried by propulsive emotions. Reid Rejsa’s sound design is ingenious. President Truman on radio, big band music and sound effects are in kinetic harmony with Michael Kittel?s lighting magic. John Francis Bueche’s stark set evokes the Army base Los Alamos lab and a guard tower at Auschwitz. These three technical magicians make a frame resonant of Greek myth that’s perfect for this story of tragic triumph.

“Act One focuses on the race to make the ultimate weapon to stop Hitler, setting you on seat?s edge, even though you know the outcome. Act Two explores Oppenheimer?s fall from governmental grace, in the spy scares permeating the emerging Atomic Age. (There?s an eerie parallel to the current search for ?sleeper?terrorists, a powerful reminder that we need historical memory.) Carson Kreitzer and the Frank Theatre ensemble hypnotize us with the modern Prometheus of science and the ancient longings of religion out of which it was born, both forces within a timeless scar of the hated outcast. Phil Kilbourne achieves a magnificent tortured meditation at the end of Oppenheimer?s life that could move even the most cynical. Maria Asp?s Lilith lingers to taunt even the most complacent with profound questions the daily news demands we ask.

“?The Lovesong Of J. Robert Oppenheimer? is an unforgettable theater experience, that leaves one humbled and disturbed, awed by the human capacity to create and destroy from our broken hearts and, ultimately, mysterious Spirit.”

–Lydia Howell, Pulse Magazine

“Like the T.S. Eliot poem from which it pilfers its title, “The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer” is a knotty and frequently ironic piece of writing that won’t unveil all of itself on a first encounter.

“Carson Kreitzer’s new play is an ambitious, impressive, flawed work. You sometimes have to squint for its metaphors, struggle for its connections and endure the small pontifications of the playwright. But the play’s intelligence, its prescience and its sense of intellectual and emotional questing make it a worthwhile journey.

“Instead of Eliot’s amorphous Mr. Prufrock, Kreitzer presents us with the real-life character of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Kreitzer frames the play as a dialogue between the she-devil and the scientist.

“The playwright gives us the parallels between these characters almost immediately. In Hebrew mythology, Lilith was God’s first draft of woman, who was cast out of paradise for refusing to toe the line. Oppenheimer, a Jew, created the first generation of atomic weaponry during World War II, then lost his security clearance after speaking out against the further use of nuclear weapons.

“The play, which director Wendy Knox has ingeniously set in a immense sandbox that’s meant to represent the barren landscape of the Los Alamos lab where the bomb was developed, follows Oppenheimer’s spectacular rise and his fall from grace. Through it all, Lilith ? a wild-haired demon prowling scaffolding erected around the stage ? haunts and taunts Oppenheimer.

“The relationship is often an electric one, giving a spicy, surrealistic overlay to the more straightforward historical narrative. Phil Kilbourne renders Oppenheimer with an unflappably calm exterior but allows the character’s diverse motivations ? obsession, guilt, ambition and passion for knowledge ? to leach to the surface in small, precise gestures and expressions and line readings that Oppenheimer is always second-guessing himself.

“But although Lilith is omnipresent ? and animated with a serpentine, otherworldly and definitely menacing performance by Maria Asp ? Kreitzer hasn’t a done a sufficiently rigorous job in making the connection between Lilith and Oppenheimer a solid one.

“Sometimes Lilith exists as an excuse for Oppenheimer to think aloud. Sometimes she’s the voice of his conscience. And sometimes, she’s a device for the playwright to make sure audiences understand the present-day implications of the play by shoehorning in a bit of topical commentary. As a result, Kreitzer’s undeniably effective approach sometimes looks a little bit too much like a convenient device.

“Knox is able to ameliorate this flaw with a kinetic staging that’s powered by some solid supporting performances. Annie Enneking offers a lucid, lightly terpsichorean performance as Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty.

“Patrick Bailey, John Riedlinger and Tom Sherohman each do admirable multiple duties as Oppenheimer’s fellow scientists, his military overseers and his political nemeses. Gwendolyn Schwinke is less satisfactory as Oppenheimer’s former lover, partly because of her phlegmatic performance and partly because Kreitzer hasn’t provided sufficient reason for the character to be on stage in the first place.

“The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer” is not a perfect play ? it could use one more rewrite to focus and firm its voice. But it’s a play of ideas and of emotion, sometimes in dazzling combination.”

–Dominic Papatola, St. Paul Pioneer Press