Ideas are monolithic in the Keen Company’s revival of “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Heinar Kipphardt’s 1969 play adapts the transcripts of the 1954 governmental inquiry that questioned whether Oppenheimer — known as “the father of the atomic bomb” — was a true patriot or an unrepentant Communist whose hesitancy about the development of U.S. weaponry constituted treason. Trying to consider the entire McCarthy era, Kipphardt explores not only the question of nuclear war but also the roles dissent and nonconformity can play in American democracy.
The play never simplifies its arguments. Every character — including Oppenheimer (Thomas Jay Ryan), the government attorneys arguing over his patriotism and the panel of scientists who will judge him — delivers an intricate speech on war, weaponry or the value of independent thought. Beautifully wrought, these monologues demand close attention as they wend toward their conclusions, and Kipphardt’s writing always offers the reward of a surprising or inflammatory insight.
Everything about Carl Forsman’s production insists on the gravitas of the words. Nathan Heverin’s four-tier, inverse pyramid set creates an imposing chain of command, from judges to defenders to prosecutors to witnesses. Power seems to crash down on Oppenheimer, a lone figure sitting at the bottom of the heap.
But to make sure we don’t get lost in empathy for Oppenheimer as a character, Forsman keeps his actors almost entirely disconnected. Though the dialogue has them addressing each other, thesps keep their eyes straight ahead over the audience. Rare instances of interaction only reiterate the show’s impersonality, which makes it easier to focus on the ideological content of what characters say. Ultimately, these are 12 men speaking from 12 adjacent pulpits.
And they do near-flawless work. Dense language flows easily from the ensemble’s mouths, making the dialogue sound like the spontaneous utterances of some highly educated speakers.
Whether or not they’re intentional, the cast’s occasional flubs — searching for a word, accidentally saying “A-bomb” instead of “H-bomb” — remind us that humans are indeed making these lofty pronouncements on the natures of government and science. That’s a crucial fact to remember as we consider the lasting impact this and similar “inquiries” have had on American politics.
To that end, obvious parallels fuse “Oppenheimer” to the debate surrounding the current war in Iraq (the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” even gets tossed around). Many viewers who step out of the play long enough to connect it to our current world will be chilled.
But that also points to the play’s serious limitation. To link its ideas to the present — or even to the McCarthy-era America it describes — we must intellectually remove ourselves from the action on the stage. The present moment of what we’re observing lacks dramatic urgency.
From the beginning, for instance, we are told that what we’re watching is not a proper trial. At worst, Oppenheimer is going to be stripped of his clearance to see government secrets. So even though the characters’ fulminations may affect an outside world we never see, they will have little consequence for the world being created before us. The hermetic universe of the court proceedings ends as it began, with no change in appearance, sound or behavior.
This onstage stasis makes it difficult to stay engaged, particularly after three hours. Arguably, though, Forsman is right to place the production’s focus on ideas. It would be inappropriate to tart up the show with action that just isn’t in the script. Plus, Kipphardt’s subjects are vital in the real world, so it only behooves us to consider them.
All of which leaves “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” as a conundrum, dramatic but not theatrical.