Against the background fascism’s rise in Europe, news reaches the eponymous scientist (played by John Heffernan) and his colleagues in California that two of their German counterparts are making big advances in the field of atomic fission, the process required for the production of an atomic bomb. It’s news that forces Oppenheimer to become the driving force in the effort to make sure the US gets there first.
Putting theoretical physics on stage is a daunting prospect, but it’s superbly done here by director Angus Jackson whose effective staging, in particular the seamless switches between research facility and social gatherings plus an acute sense of period, makes it all totally accessible.
Oppenheimer is, however, a play that is epic in both its scope and its length — a cast of twenty and running at three hours — but that it still manages to retain an intimacy is thanks in no small part to a compelling central performance by Heffernan who makes him totally human. He’s a man driven by ego, but troubled by the women in his life, a fractious relationship with his fellow scientist brother Frank (an edgy Michael Grady-Hall) and an ongoing tension with the military big wigs who are bankrolling his work despite their ongoing suspicions about his communist sympathies. As the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki grow ever closer the personal tensions grow ever greater.
The ensemble cast fizzes with energy and doesn’t have a weak link. Performances of particular note though come from Thomasin Rand as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, William Gaminara as the army colonel in charge of the operation ("we’re not killing Japanese, we’re saving American lives") and Tom McCall and Ben Allen as fellow scientists Hans Bethe and Edward Teller.
History tells us that Oppenheimer’s work was successful in creating a fearsome weapon, but whether it was the instrument of peace that he hoped for is a question that both Oppenheimer and the audience are left to ponder.