Review: ‘Delicate Particle Logic’ a world premiere from Indra’s Net Theater (****)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

From L to R: Terssa Byrne as Lise Meitner and Janet Keller as Edith Hahn in Indra's Net Theater's world premiere production of Jennifer Blackmer's "Delicate Particle Logic". Photo Credit: Indra's Net Theater.
From L to R: Teressa Byrne as Lise Meitner and Janet Keller as Edith Hahn in Indra’s Net Theater’s world premiere production of Jennifer Blackmer’s “Delicate Particle Logic”. Photo Credit: Indra’s Net Theater.
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Delicate Particle Logic” plays at the Osher Studio in Berkeley for a limited run of four weekends only, through November 23, 2014.)

Indra’s Net Theater declares a mission to produce plays that “deal with science, philosophy, and the ‘big questions'”. With the world premiere of Jennifer Blackmer‘s fascinating “Delicate Particle Logic”, they land a big fish.

Blackmer’s engaging, intellectual treat of a play deals with science and art, memory, truth of observation, splitting the atom, marriage and more. In the course of its presentation the audience will learn something of an artist’s process, a scientist’s process, the history of the discovery of nuclear fission, the European scientific community in the decades before, during and just after World War II, a smidgen of physics, and the politics of the Nobel Prize, all palatably presented while telling the fascinating story of German physicists Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner.

This banquet makes for a full plate. The play is quite an impressive accomplishment.

The play of ideas is a popular genre. Audiences do love to think and to feel they are learning something, and to be drawn into intriguing debates. It is, however, a difficult genre in which to succeed. I have written elsewhere about what I call “the Masterpiece Theatre Syndrome”. The syndrome is characterized by well mounted productions presenting an intriguing intellectual problem, but skimming the surface of its themes so that the scholarly and intellectual references seem more like indicators of depth than the real thing. The syndrome is the intellectual equivalent of valentines and puppy dogs, substituting powerful and evocative symbols for genuine emotion.

Jennifer Blackmer succeeds in avoiding this syndrome. She doesn’t just evoke the big ideas; her characters genuinely engage with them, struggle to understand, and educate us in the process. She accomplishes this magic by means of a wonderfully clever dramaturgic conceit: her set up for the play is to imagine an encounter between physicist Lise Meitner, the close professional colleague of Otto Hahn (together they discovered nuclear fission) and Hahn’s beloved wife of many decades, Edith, who late in life has suffered a nervous breakdown and is locked in a mental institution. Both women were Hahn’s partners in one way or another, both loved him, both felt betrayed by him. As they try to understand the difficult Otto, Edith,  the artist, looks to Lise for an understanding of Otto’s life in physics, as Lise, the scientist, looks in turn to Edith to explain her life as an artist. Both women seek to understand their shared and complicated history with a complicated man. This emotionally rich situation keeps the audience deeply involved, making it possible to keep our interest as a large amount of intellectual territory is explored.

As the women begin to discuss their lives and their pasts, other characters appear onstage to act out memories, sometimes in multiple versions of the same scene. Art and physics, love and memory, human splits and atomic splits all dance together in an elegant quadrille. At one point, director Bruce Coughran actually puts this on stage, having the actors perform an elaborate dance with one another while discussing physics at an academic conference. It works because it is not “reality” but “memory” and “memory”, like all other presumed facts, has a way of playing tricks.

In this production, the play’s the thing, making large emotional and intellectual demands on the audience with its dense text and complicated references, but all of the actors do a fine, professional job delivering the goods.

As the two women, Janet Keller and Teressa Byrne offer wide emotional range. Michael Kern Cassidy is a bit stiff as Otto Hahn, but always clear and concise in his telling of the story. As a whole series of characters, Jeff Garrett demonstrates his usual chameleon-like skills and likewise for Derek Burkowski.

The fine set and lighting design by Lili Smith and Beth Hersh, respectively, effectively evoke what a program note describes as “a room where time and space are slippery”.  Composer and Sound designer Scott Alexancer accompanies the action with an interesting and original score featuring, of all things, banjo and bassoon, which he performs to the side of the stage, in clear view of the audience.

If you work in the sciences, love the theatre, but rarely see science or scientists portrayed in performance in a meaningful or convincing way, you will love this play. For the rest of us, you may find it unusually challenging, but if you enjoy intellect in the theater, you are likely to leave quite well satisfied.

For further information, click here.

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“Delicate Particle Logic”, by Jennifer Blackmer, world premiere presented by Indra’s Net Theater. Director: Bruce Coughran. Set: Lili Smith. Lights: Beth Hersh. Original Music written and performed by Scott Alexander. 

Edith Hahn: Janet Keller. Lise Meitner: Teressa Byrne. Otto Hahn: Michael Kern Cassidy. Rubens/Haber/Coster /Strassman/Interviewer: Jeff Garrett. CVollege/Solder/Robert/SS Guard/Doctor: Darek Burkowski.

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