By James Foritano
Cambridge, MA – It’s the close of World War II, the dawn of the atomic age. The Allies have captured Germany’s Top 10 nuclear scientists and sequestered them in a country estate in England in order to listen in on their conversation and learn what they know about the American nuclear program and to gauge how close the Nazis were to making a nuclear bomb.
Ironies abound in this drama based on real military eavesdropping by playwright Alan Brody, professor of theater arts at MIT and co-director of Catalyst Collaborative @MIT, a science-meets-theater collaboration between Central Square Theater and MIT.
Exploiting the rich but incomplete trove of recordings and documents that have survived time, Alan Brody weaves a drama less about material physics than about the physics of motivation. In this placid country estate, a tangle of personalities collides and within the personalities a tangle of selves.
The viewer is the analyst, deciding not only how much these scientists knew, but how much they wanted to know and where they wanted to take their knowledge.
The experimental physicists in the group are bitterly convinced that the theoretical physicists would rather believe their theories than their eyes. This is an old split in scientific perspectives, but does it divide person from person so completely as to threaten to sink any hope of group solidarity?
And what of the Nazi party members among the scientists? Did their loyalty to an ideology overcome differences in perspective, or was ideology only a convenient way to speed on their precious careers and push aside the careers of others.
And what of the multiple splits of the self? A pivotal personality in this brew is the Nobel Prize winner, Werner Heisenberg. Werner is a ‘people’ person. He divines that the group is most worried about their reception in the worldwide scientific community when peace comes again. So Werner, like an activities director on a cruise ship rounding up errant bodies, does a good job of orchestrating a group document to ‘prove’ that all present were working not for the Nazis but for scientific ‘truth.’
Trouble is, to this observer, Werner himself is as conflicted as a pretzel. Whenever he sits at the piano, the one uncomplicated instrument in this witches brew of personalities, harmonies abound. But the yearning that another scientist/music lover discerns in these harmonies speaks more of hoped for than achieved resolutions. Does Heisenberg know himself?
As one listens to these wartime recordings, creatively imagined by playwright Brody, one alternately arrives at harmonies of interpretation that disappear around the next corner of observation.
But rather than being a frustration, these disappearing ‘truths’ leave a healthy, if bitter-sweet taste of skepticism; one yearns to be ‘debriefed’ by a superior who will excuse our ambiguous conclusions with a sympathetic ear — God, maybe?
(“Operation Epsilon” continues through April 28 at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Mass. For tickets, call (617) 576-9278.)