IN THE MATTER OF J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER Review – St. Sebastian Players Unflinchingly Explores Daunting Choices

If you are unfamiliar with St Sebastian Players, now’s that time to change that. Theater of such high quality should be a household word. 

 

Just in case I need to say it another way:  Don’t miss this remarkable piece of great theatercraft, philosophical discussion of justice, patriotism, humanity, morality, what the heck—throw in human kindness and a powerful anti-smoking demonstration—and you start to get your arms around the enormity of the content of In The Matter Of J. Robert Oppenheimer.  Wow!

 

I’ll try to tell you what it was about but it’s a little like solving Rubik’s cube: everything may line up on one side and be scrambled on the other sides. But, “from the Director” in the program did such an outstanding job of summing up, I’m not even going to try to paraphrase it:

“During the summer of 1954, the United States reached the height of McCarthyism (McCarthy's directive to find communists in the Unites States during the second Red Scare (from 1950 to 1956). Although the senator himself was not directly involved, the “circus” of the  Atomic Energy Commission's hearing was probably one of the biggest upsets produced by the Red Scare .   Louis Strauss, urged by J. Edgar Hoover, tried to stack the odds against  Oppenheimer getting his security clearance renewed.

 

So, the “Father of the Atom Bomb” sits before them (and us) being scrutinized to determine whether or not he is “fit” to continue to advise the government on atomic matters. 

 

Clearly,  it was a “witch hunt” filled with philosophical questions about destroying life (the whole world!), accusations, innuendo about loyalty to friends, causes, county, self.  Was anything left out?

 

Notice how deftly I tap-danced around the actual content?  On purpose! 

 

YOU need to go, hear their words, see their faces, watch their body language (especially Gary Barth’s Oppenheimer as he sucked on that cigarette like it was an oxygen tank!).

 

Now that you understand your assignment, let’s talk about the production.

 

This production doesn’t miss a single detail. It captures the suffocation of the room, the time, the punishing authoritarian atmosphere created by McCarthy.    

 

THE SET:  you will note how simple and static it is.  The windows are closed and the room is airless.  The men—of course there are no women—are there to do battle. It’s almost like a bullfight and Oppenheimer is the bull.  He’s fearless, mentally agile, and smart but trapped—even a bull can get out of the ring!

 

THE COSTUMES: Everybody including the military is suited up. Not a shred of personal expression or individuality in the bunch.  Oppenheimer might even fit in--if it weren’t for his trademark pork pie hat.

 

THE CAST:  I cannot say enough about this ensemble cast!  How they mastered their lines almost devoid of helpful cues, memorized esoteric, mind-blowing speeches and created unique and memorable characters is a huge tribute to their tenacity to their art. BRAVO, SSP company members: Jonathan Rocky Hagloch, Donald Aric Johnson and Steven Walanka, as well as Gary F. Barth as the title character, Patrick Bromley, Julian David Colletta, Matthew Fayfer, Logan Hulick, Marshall Jacobson, Robert Kaercher, Eric S. Prahl, Steven Rowland, Paul Russell and Thomas Sparks. 

 

THE DIRECTOR: It may have been an all-male cast, but SSP knew who to choose for director just the same! Making her SSP directing debut for In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer is Kaitlin Taylor, who assistant-directed SSP’s The Dining Room and Measure for Measure.

 

SET DESIGN: SSP company members on the production team include Emil Zbella as set designer; Paula Kenar as COSTUME DESIGNER and Beth Bruins as STAGE MANAGER, with company members Jim Masini, Nancy Pollock and Steven Walanka as co-producers.

 

SSP began producing theatre in 1982 at its original home, the St. Sebastian parish, at the corner of Halsted Street and Wellington Avenue on Chicago’s North Side. When the parish closed, SSP relocated to its current home, St. Bonaventure, at 1625 W. Diversey. During its history, the company has produced original and previously produced dramas, comedies and musicals; original audience-participation mysteries for special events; and the Monologue Matchup Competition, as well as provided support for smaller Sebastian Studio Projects produced by company members.

 

complete list of mainstage productions is available on SSP’s website.

SSP’s 33rd season concludes with Death Defying Acts, three one-act comedies by Woody Allen, David Mamet and Elaine May, which runs April 25–May 18, 2014. 

 

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer runs February 14–March 9, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at St. Bonaventure, 1625 W. Diversey, at Marshfield just west of Ashland, in Chicago. Free parking is available in two lots.

 

Full-priced single tickets are $20, $15 for students with valid IDs and $10 for seniors and children younger than 12. Group rates also are available. All programming is subject to change. For information, call 773-404-7922 or visit saintsebastianplayers.org.

 

Photos: OCA Photography

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