As one of the sacrificial lambs to the modern world’s need to tame the nuclear monster, the brilliant and daring Canadian-born physicist Louis Slotin (1910-1946) suffered an agonizing death nine days after accidentally exposing himself to a lethal dose of gamma and neutron radiation from the core of a plutonium bomb in Los Alamos, N.M. Playwright Paul Mullin has scripted an intriguing, if often redundant, fusion of stark reality and farce-laden surrealism to delve into the psyche of the dying Slotin (William Salyers), who attempts to come to terms with his own doubts while “the invisible killer” disintegrates his body from within.
Mullin constantly shifts the onstage reality between the fact-based “incident” and its aftermath to the emotional and spiritual interplay of hospitalized Slotin’s often drug-induced fantasies. Though the playwright is guilty of needless thematic overstatement and repetition, it is still fascinating to witness the tragically methodical business of chronicling Slotin’s physical decline, accented by myriad satirical vignettes, including a comical enactment of nuclear fission choreographed to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” the echolike reoccurrence of atomic age slogans (i.e. Oppenheimer’s “I am death, the destroyer of worlds”) and the vision of the Lord (Connor Trinneer) as Harry S. Truman.
The most telling specter is Slotin’s transformation into Nazi Dr. Mengele, known as “the angel of death.” Mullin draws an ominous parallel between Mengele standing at a death camp entrance with a baton conducting the movements of those who would live or die and Slotin’s own deep-seated misgivings at being a member of the Manhattan Project band that orchestrated the annihilation that rained on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Co-directors Jim Anside and Jonathan Westerberg make great use of the Court Theatre’s wide stage space to manifest the constantly shifting dramatic focus but fail to establish a consistently dynamic flow of activity among the ensemble to enhance the playwright’s dramatic throughline. Too often scenic transitions are deflated or sabotaged by awkward pauses and missed cues.
Flubbed lines aside, many of the performances are first-rate. Salyers offers a finely tuned portrayal of the glibly brilliant Slotin, whose basic humanity is in conflict with his egotistical need to be impressive. While conducting the monumentally dangerous demonstration that would kill him, Salyers’ Slotin exudes the lackadaisical air of someone opening a can of peas. And even while he is wasting away in the hospital, haunted by his visions, he can’t help but try to score personality points with the caring nurse (Ariana Navarre) who attends him.
Trinneer is thoroughly believable as Slotin’s anguished closest friend, physicist Philip Morrison, but is less successful in his God transformation, looking and sounding more like Ross Perot than Truman. John Combs is deeply moving as Slotin’s Russian Jewish immigrant father, Israel, who must come to terms with his son’s desire to have his body be an aid to science even though it goes against the father’s Orthodox beliefs. And Navarre effectively projects the ambivalence of nurse Annamae Dickie, who must maintain a professional detachment from her terminal patient while recognizing his deep need to make personal contact with her.