I need to preface my review of the Chicago premiere of “Louis Slotin Sonata” by Paul Mullin, now playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, by telling you that this is not a play for everyone. Louis Slotin was a real person, a man who , as a brilliant scientist, was involved in “The Manhattan Project” ( the building of bombs) back in the 1940’s. This is a play for people into science and the mind and perhaps should have been produced at The Court Theatre on the campus of the University of Chicago, as it might just be the best audience for this play.
Slotin ( played with great style and energy by the very talented Steve Shine) due to an unforeseen mishap, allowed a plutonium experiment to discharge in his lab in New Mexico, injuring his staff members, and killing him. The radiation from “Rufus” ( the code name for his bomb) broke down his body and in 9 days, he passed away. Mullin has taken these historical events and written a more theatrical look at an historical event. The story is sad, strange and funny while also giving us some interesting information. At the very onset of this very slick production directed by Karen Kessler, I found myself wondering “why was this play written?” and after a few scenes , my query changed to “where is Mullin going with this?”. As we progressed through the roughly two hours of flashbacks in time for a man already dead ( he dies about 10 minutes into the play), I realized where we were headed. We are watching a brilliant man question what he has helped to create. Is the bomb that he has created, one far more powerful than the ones that were used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, truly needed? And will the building of this bomb insure that there will be no more wars?
As we all know from what has taken place since May of 1946, this did not happen. Mullin’s adventurous story, however is a wonderful take on history and keeps this man’s memory alive. If you were to ask 10 people who Louis Slotin was ( except perhaps in a university science building), I would think only one or two might know the name and what took place in New Mexico. This play will keep his name alive. Mullin’s adventure includes some comical moments with some strange interludes and a wild song and dance number performed by the entire cast. Speaking of the cast, while small in numbers, it is filled with energy and some wonderful performances. With the exception of Shine only playing Slotin, all the other cast members play a multitude of roles from doctors, to soldiers to loved ones and nurses and even God. Walter Briggs ( shines as Patrick Cleary), Anita Deely as nurse Dickie, Guy Massey as Dr. Philip Morrison and others including God,Doug Vickers who stands out most for his Dr. Hempelmann, Christopher M. Walsh, Duncan Riddell ( as the ghost of Harry Daghlian, the first to die from a failed test, and last but certainly not least, Veteran Chicago actor as, among others Israel Slotin, Louis’ father. Mr. Norris has graced our stages in town for many years and all of his characters in this production are outstanding, but his handling of the Slotin role was just wonderful bringing a tear to the eye as he allowed the government to defy Jewish custom in order to perhaps save future lives.
As I said earlier, this is not a play for the masses. It is a “think piece” and for those who love science and history , I would think a must see! Because of this, I have given the play two ratings- one for the production itself ( four stars) and the other for the general audience who may not want to get into a ” think piece” ( three stars). A Red Orchid Theatre is a small, intimate venue in the heart of Old Town and due to the size of the stage area, they work , for the most part with very little set. What they have, created by John C. Stark is workable and Melissa Torchia’s costumes are fitting as well. Joseph Fosco’s sound and Julia Mack’s lighting all add to the picture that Kessler and Mullin are painting for us and Becky Marshall has found some wonderful props that are right for the time period. I would sya the only things with this Sonata that might be changed would be to trim it down by about 20 minutes and make sure that Louis’ dad, if he is as religious as his lines state, keeps his head covered. These are two minor flaws to an otherwise brilliantly done production, but again, one not for everyone.
If this is your cup of tea, it will continue at A Red Orchid Theatre located at 1531 N. Wells Street through October 24th with performances as follows:
Thursday,Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
Tickets range from $25-$30 ( a bargain for live theater of this quality)and can be purchased by calling 312-943-8722 or visiting www.aredorchidtheatre.org