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In The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer

The Keen Company's revival of this powerful docudrama encourages audiences to mull over what patriotism meant in the 1950s and what it means now.

Thomas Jay Ryan and company,
In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer
(Photo © Theresa Squire)
There's no mystery why the Keen Company is reviving In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Heinar Kipphardt's clear-headed play about the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing that the physicist requested to clear his name of disloyalty intimations. The issues raised in this docudrama, last seen in New York in its 1969 premiere, conjure words that trigger an instant emotional response today -- words like "security" and "freedom." Clearly, Keen Company artistic director Carl Forsman, who helms the production, is encouraging audiences to mull over the accurate definition of patriotism not only in the '50s but also in the age of the Patriot Act.

Though the work is provocative and even inflammatory, its drama is contained in the clash of ideologies represented and not in the kind of interpersonal confrontation that's the stuff of conventional plays. Moreover, while separating a scientist's contributions to nuclear theory from his behavior in private life is hardly a static concern, much of the action here is static. Fortunately, a top-notch ensemble cast -- led by Thomas Jay Ryan in the title role -- is impeccable about keeping the proceedings focused.

Those who are up on Cold War history know that Oppenheimer headed the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was developed. He was also instrumental in selecting the sites thought most appropriate for the bombs to be dropped, although he wasn't involved in the decision to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Affected by the results of those bombings, Oppenheimer demurred when Harry Truman gave the go-ahead for development of the hydrogen bomb. Further, Oppenheimer, who acknowledged that he'd been sympathetic to Communism in the 1930s, preferred disarmament negotiations at a time when the hunt was on for Communist sympathizers.

As a result, Oppenheimer was eventually denied security clearance. He wanted it reinstated and hoped that the AEC hearing, which was pointedly not a trial, would do the trick. It didn't: He was again denied clearance in a two-to-one decision that bore on Oppenheimer's commitment to another Communist sympathizer called Haakon Chevalier and his admission that he had lied about some particulars when he reported having been approached to share his findings with scientists in Russia.

Perhaps a shade too cavalier in his testimony during the hearing, Oppenheimer brings to mind the provocative E. M. Forster quote that goes, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I should hope I have the guts to betray my country." While at no time did Oppenheimer betray the U.S., the manner in which he prioritized his loyalties required an appreciation of nuance and moral ambiguity that wasn't uppermost in the minds of the "America-First" types occupying important government position in the 1950s -- or, for that matter, those occupying important government positions now.

Conveying this situation, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer is as much a public service announcement as a play. Ryan's Oppenheimer is a good man caught in a political predicament. The AEC counsellors (Rocco Sisto and Matthew Rauch), though occasionally complimentary towards Oppenheimer, remains harshly critical and suspicious of his motives, while the three-man Personnel Security Board (Wilbur Edwin Henry, Dan Daily, and Peter Davies) are professionally detached. The Oppenheimer counsellors (Ian Stuart and Steve Routman) defend their client's position with familiar lawyerly persuasion. Only the four witnesses -- the most famous of them being hydrogen-bomb developer Edward Teller (Keith Reddin) -- supplement with their own brighter tints the occasional color that Oppenheimer provides.

Forsman positions his players on the four levels of Nathan Heverin's set: Oppenheimer and the other witnesses sit center stage with the physicist's famous hat placed on a nearby bench; the opposing counsellors are on a raised level behind them; Oppenheimer's counsellors are raised two levels towards stage right; and the board is raised three levels and centered. Forsman's notion is that the direction in which the cast members face indicates their engagement with Oppenheimer. The security board members and the counsellors never move from their perches, and the witnesses only ambulate insofar as they need to enter, take an oath, sit, or exit.

Kipphardt has redacted the hearing so that it has the power to provoke basic emotional responses like anger, and that's probably enough to ask of anyone intent on bringing the Oppenheimer matter to the stage. Without worrying about the usual conventions of drama, Forsman's stripped-down production shows us how a dark episode from the past sheds light on an America that's once again darkening.