Arts theater review

“Operation Epsilon” — Ten scientists, one stage

Professor Alan Brody’s masterful new play addresses science and ethics

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Left to right: Kurt Diebner, Carl-Friederich von Weizsäcker, Otto Hahn, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Harteck, Walther Gerlach, Max von Laue, Horst Korsching (seated on floor), Karl Wirtz, and Erich Bagge in “Operation Epsilon.”
A. R. Sinclair Photography

Operation Epsilon

By Alan Brody

Directd by Andy Sandberg

March 7 – April 28, 2013

The Nora Theatre Company

Central Square Theater

It’s the close of World War II. The British and Americans have imprisoned Germany’s top ten nuclear scientists in a lavish English estate, Farm Hall. Every room in the house, from the piano room to the parlor, is bugged. The Allies listen to the scientists’ conversations to determine how close Nazi Germany is to building an atomic bomb.

Based on the transcribed conversations of the scientists at Farm Hall, playwright and MIT Professor Alan Brody reconstructs what it might have been like at Farm Hall during “Operation Epsilon” (the codename for the Allies program to capture and spy on the scientists).

Directed by Tony Award winner Andy Sandberg, the play masterfully portrays history and stimulates the audience throughout. It reminds us of the frantic race build the first bomb and conveys the personal tensions between the detained, at times emotional, scientists. It also highlights the subtle irony of how official anti-Semitism thwarted the Nazi war effort by depriving Germany of some of its best scientists.

The casting is brilliant. MIT students will recognize some of the physicist characters, including Nobel Prize winners Otto Hahn (who discovered nuclear fission) and Werner Heisenberg (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). Unlike today’s stereotypical researchers, the ten captives unfailingly dress in classy knits and pinstripe suits. They are so distinct in personality that after ten minutes the audience can distinguish them, even though they look and dress somewhat alike. Erich Bagge (Kendall Hodder), always the first to rush to tea or dinner, cannot keep his mind off his stomach, providing some comic relief. Haughty Horst Korsching (Ross MacDonald) pokes fun at the older scientists. Werner Heisenberg (Diego Arciniegas, professor of theater at Wellesley) commands the room’s attention whenever he speaks, despite his disagreeable personality. Wiser and calmer than the rest, Otto Hahn (Will Lyman) is the first to cry when he learns the Americans dropped the bomb on Japan.

The set, designed by Janie E. Howland, is perfect: clean and elegantly simple. It could be the apartment in Brideshead Revisited. The arrogant young Korsching lounges on bookshelves along the edge of the room and flips through titles distractedly during conversations. Heisenberg plays the piano in the back room. Walther Gerlach (Robert Murphy) darts out of the back door to tend the garden. Their British army officer minder mostly keeps to his office, tucked in a side wing on the stage. While action and lighting are directed on the second level, downstairs someone might be reading on the sofa, giving life to the entire stage. At times the audience feels it is watching events roll out in a 1940s-dollhouse.

When the scientists hear the news about the American bomb, disbelief hangs thick in the air. Hitler’s “Uranium Club” was, in fact, behind America’s Manhattan Project. The scientists, confounded, discuss what must have happened, and blame Heisenberg’s miscalculation. Heisenberg spends days without sleep or food going over his calculations, somewhat reminiscent of a student working on a tough problem set. The only engineer of the group, Paul Harteck (Allan Mayo), is always there to support his inmates, somewhat like a GRT.

The play is connected to MIT in many ways. It is the Nora Theater Company’s first project with Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, a program promoting collaboration between science and art. In addition, MIT supports Central Square Theater and, of course, the playwright Alan Brody is a professor in the Music and Theater Arts department.

Brody learned of the Farm Hall transcripts from fellow MIT professor Alan Lightman. “I knew instantly that this was worth pursuing as a project,” Brody said in an email to The Tech. He started research for the play seven years ago, during the Bush/Cheney era of escalating militarism in American society. “I believed there were moral and ethical issues buried in the material that I wanted to explore. I’ve found out those issues weren’t just limited to that time. They’re still very much with us.”

Brody worked from the transcripts published in Jeremy Bernstein’s book Hitler’s Uranium Club, using his imagination to conjure scenes. “Since the transcripts included primarily scientific or political material, I felt I had a free hand to imagine the human interactions.”

Brody hopes the audience will take away “a lot of questions” from the play, talk about it, and feel “a deepened sense of everyone’s humanity, and responsibility, without feeling they are being preached at.”

The play certainly does that. A week has passed since I saw the preview and I’m still thinking about the ramifications of scientific research when it is closely tied to nationalism, as it was in the play, and the dramatic consequences of scientific breakthroughs that are often neither anticipated nor intended by the researchers.

The author saw a preview performance on March 14, before it was officially released to the press or public.