Of God's and Atoms

Uneasy nuclear paranoia radiates from Trinity 5:29, Axis Company’s brisk, deftly staged meditation on Robert Oppenheimer and the test of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Rather than a straight docudrama, director Randy Sharp has opted instead to focus on the historical weight of the test, often evoking religious allusions to good effect. Brought to Los Alamos by President Harry S. Truman, Oppenheimer and his possibly communist lover Jean Tatlock find themselves faced with a giant wooden crate, within which resides an unseen atomic conductor. Their every movement around the crate is watched closely by General Groves, who eventually brings Tatlock’s political leanings into question.

At Los Alamos, Truman is more God than President – making his lapdog Groves the over-achieving archangel, I suppose – and the piece frequently experiments with Biblical allegory. In one segment straight out of Genesis, Tatlock entices Oppenheimer to peer inside the giant crate, though Truman has expressly forbidden it. Later, Oppenheimer stands in for Jonah when he is trapped in the crate. Indeed, these religious citations provide a perfect context for the creation of the atomic bomb: what is the extent of mankind’s power? What is the extent of mankind’s right to dabble in such power?

Trinity’s script (no singular playwright is credited) is terse and cryptic, as though every line of dialogue shields a well-guarded secret of national interest. At one point, Tatlock tries to spoon-feed Oppenheimer radioactive condensation from the conductor under threat from Groves, a fascinating scene that clearly illustrates the desperate sense of life and death hanging over Los Alamos in July of 1945. While someone seeking an informative biography of Oppenheimer might be disappointed, the snappish, abstract text offers a worthy examination of his historical significance.

Director Sharp and his designers economically create a spooky, sanitized aesthetic using only tinny period music, hard lights and a few set pieces. The staging is meticulous and purposely rigid, probably to highlight the military aspects of the narrative. Brian Barnhart, Marc Palmieri and Britt Genelin turn in solid performances as Truman, Groves and Tatlock, respectively, but Edgar Oliver’s Oppenheimer is a bizarrely theatrical creature, nearing the realm of farce. Not an inappropriate choice considering Oppenheimer’s larger-than-life historical status, but next to the more grounded cast members, Oliver’s velvety line readings evoked old Hollywood more than nuclear physics.

And then after forty-five minutes, Trinity 5:29 ends abruptly in a flash of light. My audience was dumbstruck by the swift intensity of the piece, blinkingly wondering if the play was really over or if it was just intermission. Despite some unevenness in the cast, Axis Company’s rumination on man’s destructive atomic destiny closes aptly – a blast of radiance and then nothing.

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