Burning Coal Theatre Company: Brian Linden and Debra Gillingham Head the Stellar Cast of The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer
by Robert W. McDowell
New York actor Brian Linden, who plays the deeply conflicted title character in the current Burning Coal Theatre Company production of The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Carson Kreitzer, not only gives a completely compelling performance, but serves as the calm, thoughtful center for the veritable cyclone of events — some real, some surreal — whirl around him. Oppenheimer served as director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the world’s first atomic bombs at a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, NM. Because he was Jewish and had connections with certain Communist Party members, including his third wife, Kitty (Morissa Nagel), Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer were under constant surveillance by elements of the U.S. government’s security apparatus. His 1936 affair with Stanford University psychology student Jean Tatlock (Julie Oliver) was probably also subject of government scrutiny, especially after she committed suicide in July 1944.
There’s an old saying that “Even paranoids have real enemies.” So, while various government agents were spying on Oppenheimer, fellow American physicist Edward Teller (James Anderson), and cohorts, the Russians were lurking in the shadows of Los Alamos and every other laboratory where atomic research was under way. Moreover, the former U.S.S.R. eventually got the a-bomb secrets that it was seeking.
What makes The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer such a fascinating and important play, especially now that Iran is on the verge of joining the nuclear club, is the love rectangle that playwright Carson Kreitzer creates in which Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer, Jean Tatlock, and a mythical character named Lilith (Wilmington, NC actress Debra Gillingham) candidly discuss the wisdom and consequences of letting the atomic genie out of the bottle.
Burning Coal director Emily Tilson Ranii makes a most impressive professional debut with this production. She stages this surrealistic script with great imagination and admirable energy on a striking set by scenic designer Vicki R. Davis, who arranges six white kimonos in a Triangle on the back wall to symbolize the heavenward flight of thousands of Japanese souls when the weapons of mass destruction devised by Robert Oppenheimer and company in the New Mexico desert obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lighting designer E.D. Intemann, costume designer Johannah Maynard, properties master Jon Byers, and sound designer Elisheba Ittoop also make sizable contributions to this provocative staging of a terribly timely play.
Brian Linden slips easily beneath Robert Oppenheimer’s skin; and Debra Gillingham — dirty-faced in a tattered tutu — makes the original she-devil Lilith, Adam’s uppity first wife in Hebrew folklore, into the personification of dark, highly destructive goddess of myth—and she and Oppenheimer discuss the terrible forces unleashed with the explosion of the first two atom bombs.
Julie Oliver gives a quietly effective performance as Jean Tatlock, wrestling her own demons and finally succumbing to suicidal depression; Morissa Nagel is sweet and sassy as Kitty Oppenheimer; and James Anderson makes the difficult Edward Teller a perfect foil for Robert Oppenheimer. Anderson plays the prickly egotistical Teller for laughs, but takes a much more somber approach to his other role as a sinister U.S. spy sent to sniff out treasonous activities at Los Alamos.
Fred Corlett adds a charming characterization of Oppenheimer’s jovial colleague and supporter Isador Rabi, and Lucius Robinson doubles effectively as a young scientist named Strauss and as an ever-present agent of some national security apparatus or other.
The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer mimics the title of , and repeats some lines from, the 1911 poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by American expatriate poet T. S. Eliot. The nuclear wasteland that Oppenheimer and cohorts created in Japan is a haunting reminder why nuclear weapons must never be used again, and the Burning Coal Theatre Company presentation of Carson Kreitzer’s thought-provoking play really explores this hot-button issue for Triangle theatergoers in a form that is both entertaining and cautionary. Don’t miss it.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer Thursday, Nov. 8-10 and 15-17, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 11 and 18, at 2 p.m.; in the Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($14 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except $10 Thursdays and $5 Student Rush tickets. 919/834-4001 or via etix @ the presenter's site. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/tickets.html [inactive 3/09].