by Phil Beck
Iowa City – Copenhagen, Dreamwell Theatre’s production of Michael Frayn’s Tony Award winning play, opened May 12 with a single question: “Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen?” The various possible answers, and their ramifications, form the basis of this erudite, Rashomon-like investigation into the past. In 1941 the German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Gavin Conkling) traveled to Occupied Denmark to visit his old mentor, Niels Bohr (Matthew Brewbaker) and his wife, Margarethe (Jessica Wilson). The purpose and substance of his visit has been debated ever since by both historians and by the principles themselves, who in the years following offered different accounts of what they talked about. Whatever it was, it had import for the whole world—the two Nobel Prize-winning physicists each worked on the development of the atomic bomb, Heisenberg (unsuccessfully) for Nazi Germany and Bohr for the U.S. team that created the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.
Did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen to find out what Bohr knew about nuclear fission, to ask for forgiveness for working for the Nazis, to impress the renowned scientist he’d once worked for with his own considerable accomplishments? These and other theories are debated during the course of Frayn’s brilliant speculative drama, a sophisticated blend of science, history, psychology, and fantasy. Fantasy because the characters are all dead—they meet years after the real events to pick through them, replaying them in three separate versions, in an attempt to reconcile their conflicting memories and arrive at some kind of agreement on the truth of what happened in 1941 and what it meant for the world’s future. Their conversation is sparked with frequent disagreements and contrasting interpretations, punctuated by moments when each directly addresses the audience, narrating what they remember and what they think it signified, as if presenting competing arguments for the audience’s judgment.
The play is dense with facts—historical, biographical, scientific–and layers of philosophical discussion, which makes it challenging for the audience but fortunately never intimidating. Frayn’s singular achievement in this play is his ability to relate abstract ideas to concrete events and explain complex principles of physics in terms of human behavior, and vice versa. Science and life are made metaphors for each other, and though the play is wordy and involved, it never loses sight of the personal story of its three protagonists, a story of their anguish over past deeds and their need to understand them and find peace.
Copenhagen simply wouldn’t work without strong, credible performances in each of its roles, and Dreamwell hits the trifecta with its cast. On a purely technical level, all handle the play’s voluminous amounts of dialogue and scientific terminology with impressive skill. There were some opening night stumbles, but none that did much harm, and they’re almost to be expected in a play that demands its players speak so many lines. Conkling stands out as the tortured Heisenberg, a man seeking acknowledgment of the central role he played in the science of nuclear fission without shouldering any of the responsibility for the death and destruction it caused. Conkling walks this fine line adroitly, at times speaking with an assurance that borders on arrogance to Bohrs and Margarethe, at other times refusing to meet their gaze, turning away from them and toward the audience so they don’t see the haunted look in his eyes that we do. Brewbaker, by contrast, exudes warmth and civility as the paternalistic Bohr, graciously receiving Heisenberg’s return to his home as if welcoming a stray lamb back in the fold. But as the evening’s discussion takes unexpected turns, Bohr’s placidity crumbles and Brewbaker movingly portrays his growing uncertainty with agitated, sometimes halting delivery, and distressed movements of his hands.
One of the play’s chief conceits is drawing parallels between the relationship of the three protagonists and molecular structure. Heisenberg recalls that Bohr was the nucleus around which he and his fellow pupils rotated like electrons. Director Madonna Smith reinforces this idea throughout the play with her character groupings, placing a calm and silent observer between two who are arguing, like a nucleus holding the molecule of the stage together. The one most often at the center, perhaps not surprisingly, is Margarethe, who, though not a physicist herself, is an able partner in her husband’s work, as well as a more incisive judge of character (she has less sympathy for Heisenberg, who clearly fears her more than his indulgent ex-mentor). Despite fewer lines, Jessica Wilson makes her presence felt as forcefully as her male co-stars, keeping close watch on the scientists’ heated debates with an intense, almost unblinking gaze, and signaling her character’s seriousness and resolution with stiff, formal posture. Wilson is also the one with the closest connection to the audience, addressing it more often than the others, and acting as its surrogate in the play, the one who needs scientific complexities explained in plain, everyday language. Her precise diction and dignified demeanor keep the play grounded in reality, even during its most extreme flights of theoretical fancy.
Despite Copenhagen’s verbosity and length (almost 2 ½ hours), Smith’s direction keeps it taut almost to the end, when the play, in orbit a bit too long, begins to show signs of fatigue. (The endless splitting of hairs and comparisons of human actions to molecular movements, dazzling at first, creep toward self-parody after so much time.) Of more concern is the decision to project images on a screen behind the actors while the play is in progress. Diagrams of molecular formulas, photos of Copenhagen, and other historical references are obviously meant to provide context for the story but they tend to be more distracting than illuminating. They also underscore the expository nature of much of the dialogue, stressing the detachment of a lecture over emotional engagement. The actors, who emerge from a door at the back, have to duck awkwardly under the screen to get to the stage, a further disadvantage of this device.
Ultimately, these are minor irritations in a production that does justice to an intriguing, challenging, and thought-provoking script. Copenhagen is Dreamwell’s final production of the season and they finish on a high note with a powerful interpretation of a play that demonstrates the critical importance of revisiting the past to learn from it, even when what is learned is uncertain.