Fission, confusion and death – oh my!

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(c) Michael Brosilow

Louis Slotin (Steve Schine) demonstrates a fission experiment to the scientist who will succeed him at Los Alamos (Christopher M. Walsh).

Review: Paul Mullin’s “Louis Slotin Sonata” 
at A Red Orchid Theatre, Chicago

Almost as enduring as the work of nuclear physicist Louis Slotin, who helped to create the first atomic bomb and later pushed that envelope, are the horrific circumstances of his death from radiation poisoning.

Slotin, a Canadian whose brilliance won him a place in the Manhattan Project, died in May 1946, at age 35, the result of his own error in a Los Alamos laboratory test that instantly exposed him to a lethal dose of radiation.

 Perhaps because Slotin’s agonizing death – he lingered through nine days of disintegration – seemed so compelling a mirror image of the numberless thousands of Japanese who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his catastrophe has been revisited in several fictionalized accounts.

But it’s probably safe to say none has engaged the wonder, the risk, the moral conundrum or the madness of Slotkin’s work and death with quite the theatrical bravura or invention of Paul Mullin’s play “Louis Slotkin Sonata,” which Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theater now recreates with ambitious flair.

The very title offers a first hint that this may not be an altogether       conventional affair of the stage. But neither is Mullin’s play musical theater. The “sonata” bit is reflected in a dramatic structure that roughly describes sonata form in classical music: that is, an exposition of material, with some repetition of themes; a development section more or less equivalent to improvisation in jazz, and a recapitulation of principal themes that may (and in the present case certainly does) set them forth in considerably altered appearance. Finally, the requisite coda – a free-wheeling last hurrah.

But let’s not get too distracted by musical parallels, though one might reasonably suggest that, in the end, Mullin’s form is his content. Anyway, his point – that man plays with fire when he plays with, well, fire – is driven home by fantastical variations on themes refracted through the dying Slotin’s moral prism.

Director Karen Kessler pursues Mullin’s mad possibilities well into the realm of farce and even beyond its borders to a cavorting absurdity. But of course we’re talking about fiddling with nuclear fission to create world-snuffing bombs, which is already theater of the absurd.

Kessler’s adaptable cast – almost everyone plays multiple roles – is headed by Steve Schine as Slotin, a burned-out bomb putter-togetherer (this historical self-description comes from his lips here) who’s about to hand over the job to his successor and take a position at the University of Chicago.

Schine brings a cowboy swagger to the part, a plausible hint at how the awful accident might have happened. What we do not see, as Slotin’s fatal irradiation begins to destroy him, is a man in agony. We get instead a droll fellow with a quick wit and a reassuring word for everyone.

More interesting than this too-cool Slotin is his nightmarish second self. Hallucinating under the influence of morphine, he descends repeatedly into a pit of moral rebuke for the misery his work has caused. He imagines himself, among other things, the monstrous Nazi physician Josef Mengele, the so-called Death Angel of Auschwitz.

As Mullin’s sonata spins into a fitful recapitulation, Slotin leads his fellow scientists, all reconfigured through the poor soul’s dementia, off the deep end of Dadaist theater. I leave their ultimate transmogrification to your discovery and delectation.

A Red Orchid makes a spirited effort to corral Mullin’s cautionary tale. But careening as it does between Sartre and Groucho Marx, “Louis Slotin Sonata” is, if not exactly a neutron bomb, at least a fission experiment gone curiously awry.

Through Oct. 24. aredorchidtheatre.org. Call (312) 943-8722.