KPBS AIRDATE: September 01, 2006
A conversation took place 65 years ago, and it’s still a matter of controversy and conjecture. It was 1941. Denmark was under Nazi occupation. German physicist Werner Heisenberg made a dangerous, clandestine visit to his former mentor, Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Although the two brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning scientists were colleagues and friends, they were on opposite sides of the war, both racing against time, struggling with the challenge of creating an atomic bomb. The Germans ultimately failed to develop a nuclear weapon – but why? Was it because Heisenberg intentionally sabotaged the program so Germany wouldn’t win the war? Or was it a scientific failure on his part? And why did he visit Bohr? To learn what the Allies were up to? Or to assure the half-Jewish Bohr of his loyalty? Was it for advice — or absolution? We’ll never know.
And that’s exactly what the award-winning English playwright Michael Frayn chose to focus on in “Copenhagen,” the 2000 Tony Award winner for Best Play. The density and depth of scientific information, the intriguing relationship and the situation mirror the most famous theories of the two geniuses: Complementarity and Uncertainty. But at heart, the play is about fathers and sons, loss and grief, friendship and forgiveness, creativity and conscience. And, in these perilous times of nuclear power-politics, the meeting of these minds feels frighteningly relevant today.
Frayn’s play propelled Bohr’s descendants to release new letters and documents in 2002. But the Uncertainty remains. And that’s the attraction of the history and the play. It’s a small, intense drama, beautifully and precisely presented by Cygnet Theatre, under the taut, focused direction of George Yé. It’s his best work ever, and his finely tuned cast is superb; the rhythm and flow, silences and emotions are perfectly calibrated. The three characters, we learn at the outset, are dead. Still, they’re trying to re-create that fateful meeting, re-playing it repeatedly, with variations, to nail down exactly what happened and why.
Jim Chovick, a tad tentative at times on opening night, makes a formidable Bohr, whose fatherly attraction to the arrogant Heisenberg can’t be denied. As his wife, Rosina Reynolds is outstanding, serving as observer and commentator, keeping the men honest in their recollections and comprehensible in their explanations. Joshua Everett Johnson is a marvel as Heisenberg — hesitant, forthright; angry, petulant; thoughtful, thoughtless; unlikable, irresistible. It’s a stunning performance. Overall, a stellar ensemble and a thought-provoking production, set on a nearly empty stage, sensitively lit: three chairs flanked by chalkboards filled with mathematical equations. You don’t have to know physics, or history. But the play forces you to pay attention, and to contemplate the ambiguity and unpredictability of human memory and human nature.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.