There is game that historians like to play – and books written to justify their speculations – where they hypothesize the “what ifs” of major events in history. What if Jesus Christ had not lived? What if the Renaissance began 1000 years earlier? What if Lincoln or Kennedy had not been assassinated? What if Nazi Germany had developed a workable nuclear weapon before the United States did? This last one is the question, at least in part, which runs through the core of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. More precisely, the focus of the play – and the question directly stated in the script several times – is why did Werner Heisenberg, the head of Germany’s nuclear reactor program, visit his mentor Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in September, 1941? What follows is a fascinating and seemingly endless peeling of the layers of the human onion: questions lead to incomplete answers, which lead to only more questions.

Copenhagen premiered in London in 1998 and opened on Broadway in 2000. It won Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Actress and Best Direction. Copenhagen is a play intended for mature audiences, but not in the usual sense of that phrase. There is no sex, violence or coarse language, but an unspoken requirement that in order to understand and appreciate this work you must devote your full attention and concentration on two hours and 15 minutes of unending and often overlapping dialogue. There is no change in lighting, no scenery, no costume changes, no sets and no stage directions of any kind in the script. South Stream Productions‘ shows at Durham’s Common Ground Theatre took place in a totally empty black box theater with just three actors and three chairs.

The play begins with Margrethe Bohr (Bonnie Roe) and Niels Bohr (John Honeycutt) entering with their chairs and placing them facing away from where I was seated. My initial concern that I was on the “wrong” side of a theater-in-the-round was quickly allayed. A few minutes later Werner Heisenberg (Brook North) arrived and we were under way. Oh, one other thing: all three characters are dead and looking back at that September, 1941 meeting from what should be a more objective and clear perspective. From what ensues, the only thing that becomes clear is the realization that why we do what we do remains murky and often unknowable.

Although not quite a course in Physics, Copenhagen certainly does not dumb down the dense discussions between Heisenberg and Bohr concerning the principles of atomic theory. Quite cleverly, and historically accurate, Bohr’s wife Margrethe is used as the non-scientist to whom these explanations must be understood. Heisenberg is a wunderkind physicist who at the age of 26 became the youngest full professor ever in Germany. He is a conflicted character who doesn’t quite have his head completely in the sand regarding Nazi activities, but also professes love of his homeland and his countrymen. Bohr, half Jewish and living in German-occupied Denmark, eventually went to Los Alamos where his work helped to build the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 1941 meeting between the two that is in question ended abruptly with great acrimony. The play is basically several vignettes where the three characters revisit this meeting to attempt to discern what took place and why.

There are several ironies revealed, one in particular, which may have saved the world as we know it. Many of the greatest physicists in Germany in the 1930s were Jewish and forbidden to work on weapons programs, instead consigned to teaching positions. It is a near certainty that those scientists would have had the capacity to solve the final pieces for a nuclear weapon that would have undoubtedly destroyed London, Paris and other major cities. This is similar to the revelation that Heisenberg, who was recognized as a brilliant mathematician, forgot to calculate a relatively simple component that would have completed the building of the bomb. He could not explain this flagrant oversight, yet would not admit that he withheld this because of his realization of what his “beloved homeland” would do with it. Yet, Bohr also could be smug about the bombs falling on Japan, while he minimized his influence on its technology.

This is not a play that effortlessly flows over you. It does require work, but is richly rewarding. I find myself pondering it a great deal the next day and wanting to see it again, knowing that a lot was missed. Bonnie Roe was excellent as Bohr’s wife, the mediator who asks the difficult – and human – questions to a pair of brilliant men so consumed with the activities of infinitesimal, barely conceivable particles that they cannot articulate human feelings. Brook North as Heisenberg and John Honeycutt as Niels Bohr were perfectly cast and were totally engaged in their characters, a difficult task while performing literally inches from the audience. There are no answers here, but that is the challenge for all of us.

Copenhagen continues through January 13, performing the remainder of its run at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.