Here's the story of the man who held the existence of the planet in his palm.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, a quantum physicist, philosopher and ex-Communist, was one of the brains behind the Manhattan Project, the code name for American efforts to develop an atomic weapon during World War II. "Irreversible," the 2015 play by award-winning playwright Jack Karp, is based on the story of Oppenheimer and the group of physicists and scientists who changed history.
The show by Counterweight Theatre Lab opens Friday at Pikes Peak Market and runs through May 27.
"It felt timely," said director Ethan Everhart, who's also Counterweight's artistic director. "The kind of Cold War concern with nuclear annihilation doesn't exist anymore, but nothing has really changed given there are more nuclear weapons now than then. Recently it's come back more into the public discourse."
Set in the New Mexico desert in 1945, the play follows Oppenheimer (Jude Bishop) as he and his colleagues, which include his scientist brother, Frank (Joe O'Rear), struggle to create a nuclear bomb as quickly as possible in the wake of the rumor that the Nazis are on track to complete the mission first. Woven throughout the script are Oppenheimer's relationship dramas with his wife (Brianna G. Pilon) and his lover (Mallory Everhart).
"He's a really complicated figure," Ethan Everhart said. "I don't know if anyone else could have balanced the science and politics to make the project work. I view him as a tragic figure, almost mythical or Shakespearean. He believed in science and that it's always better to know something than to not know it."
Everhart and the cast have found a common response from people they talk to about the show - an unfamiliarity with Oppenheimer and what he accomplished. Everhart believes it has something to do with Oppenheimer's fall from grace after the project was finished.
"Because of his political associations in the past, he was a victim of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. He had a bunch of hearings in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and never really recovered in terms of his reputation."
The question must be asked: Did Oppenheimer regret his participation in developing a weapon of mass destruction? That's something Everhart and his cast have tussled with at length but never will know for sure. Everhart can see different avenues of thought, including that if Oppenheimer didn't create the bomb, someone else would have and there would be no knowing how they would use it.
"The other angle is the implications don't matter, it's the science of it," he said. "There's a line in the play where someone has the idea for a bigger bomb. This is after he's been talking to another character about the horrors of a nuclear bomb, and he says, 'If nothing else, it's a technically sweet idea.' I don't know that he regretted the project to build it, but how it became used and got out of hand very quickly."
JENNIFER MULSON, THE GAZETTE, 636-0270, JEN.MULSON@GAZETTE.COM