Science is often viewed as the pure search for truth, agnostic of politics. But since the results of scientific discoveries can have far-reaching ramifications both good and bad, can scientists really hold themselves neutral? Set in the twilight of World War II, Alan Brody's "Operation Epsilon" explores this ethical conundrum. The world premiere production by the Nora Theatre Company is rich with food for thought, but explores so many ideas that it diffuses its power to persuade.
At the same time that the U.S. was readying to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Allied forces were also trying to discover how close the vanquished Nazis were to developing the bomb. "Operation Epsilon" centers on the final months of this effort, where 10 of Germany's top nuclear scientists were confined at Farm Hall estate in Britain under the watchful eye -- and many hidden microphones -- of Major Rittner (Barlow Adamson).
The Germans are convinced their program is ahead of the Allies, so their reaction to the news of Hiroshima is less one of horror; rather, in the words of one character, that the Germans were "second rate." The leader of the group, Werner Heisenberg (he of the uncertainty principle, played with an easy earnestness by Diego Arciniegas) tries to convince his colleagues to publish a statement that they weren't trying to build a bomb but instead just a nuclear reactor to generator energy. Rival physicist Kurt Diebner (Owen Doyle, nicely simmering with rage and envy of Heisenberg's fame) plans to tell the world that Heisenberg intentionally mucked up the fission calculations in order to deprive Hitler of an atomic bomb.
This view of Heisenberg is at odds with the ethically tortured character in Michael Frayn’s "Copenhagen" but it is more historically accurate. Playwright Brody mined the transcripts of the secret recordings at Farm Hall for his dialogue, so Heisenberg calling Diebner’s scenario "a useful misapprehension" is likely true. Also a recently made public letter from fellow physicist Neils Bohr settles the question for posterity: Heisenberg was doing his best to make a bomb for the Third Reich, he just couldn’t achieve it.
And this is the crux of Brody’s play, that the characters told themselves that they were simply searching for scientific truth and, despite being funded by Hitler, were not trying to develop weapons for him. Brody’s point is a good and interesting one, that scientists who declare themselves beyond ethics take a moral (or immoral) position by not taking a position. This point is Brody’s elephant in the room, but it’s not fully explored until the play’s final scene.
Instead the bulk of the play is taken up with competing egos, men more tortured by the thought that they might not be the best and the brightest than anything else. In this talky production with many characters competing for attention, many actors get crowded into the background; yes, like the magnificent, wood paneled, impeccably period-decorated, two-story set, they used as stunning and well-executed background, but background nonetheless. Still director Andy Sandberg does an admirable job of keeping their conversation interesting enough to feel like action.
Some actors pop however, including Arciniegas as the grasping Heisenberg. Chief among them is Will Lyman as scientist elder statesman Otto Hahn. Along with a few others (one a Jew he helped escape the Reich), Hahn first discovered nuclear fission. Lyman’s reaction to the use of a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, filled with guilt and shame at the destruction he feels he directly caused, is a stunner. Lyman is both elegant, dignified and rawly emotional; his conversations with Ken Baltin, also doing fine work as Max Von Laue (a physicist who stayed in Germany but refused to work on the nuclear project), grappling with the morals of working in nuclear physics, let alone for Hitler’s war effort, ground the play.
The other characters get shorthanded by minor character traits. Gerlach (Robert D. Murphy) gardens, Korsching (Ross MacDonald) is sarcastic, Von Weizsacker (Dan Whelton) is a toady, Wirtz (John Kooi) is slightly shifty, and Harteck (Allan Mayo) is the genial engineer. Scientist and Nazi party member Erich Bagge is also defined by his love of food, but Kendall Hodder is so perfectly pampered and whiny in his performance, he takes nifty advantage of every moment of humor, a welcome respite from the drama.
Brody’s use of that character of Bagge as comic relief is well-established by the second act, so having Bagge declare that Farm Hall is a concentration camp is a dramatic sucker punch that whips the play back to the horrors of the Nazi regime, something no character wants to dwell much on. It also gives the woefully underused Barlow a nice moment.
But the sole problem with "Operation Epsilon" is that such moments of dramatic tension, let alone ones that build to an emotional payoff, are not frequent enough and happen mostly early on. Perhaps it’s due to Brody’s adherence to the facts. There really were that many scientists at Farm Hall, but do all of them need to have major roles in the play? -- Or by placing the bombing of Hiroshima at an early point, do its plot-stirring ramifications run out before the play ends?
Despite its few structural flaws, this a play that sticks with you, for the lesser known history it explores, the moral questions it raises, the excellent performances, and the richly detailed production.
"Operation Epsilon" continues through Apr. 28, 2013 at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge. For more info you can go to the company’s website.