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Timely political drama plays out on stage

October 10, 2017
young man in a suit seated in front of several standing castmembers on stageJoel Omino ’21 (seated), one of the castmembers who plays J. Robert Oppenheimer, is joined by fellow performers of the International Theatre Program's fall production "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer." (University photo / J. Adam Fenster)

The International Theatre Program steps into a new genre this fall with In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Arguments take center stage in the docudrama, set to open on Thursday, October 12. Written by German playwright Heinar Kipphardt, the work takes a look at politics in a way that’s “shockingly prescient and timely,” says Nigel Maister, Russell and Ruth Peck Artistic Director of the International Theatre Program and the production’s director and set designer.

Left to right: Ewan Shannon ’20 (Lansdale), Samantha Richardson ’19 (Rolander), and Olivia Banc ’21 (Robb) perform in the docudrama, which is taken from transcripts of the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing. (University photo / J. Adam Fenster)

On Saturday, October 14, after the evening performance, the Theatre Program will host a panel discussion, with Theatre Program Artistic Director Nigel Maister, to discuss the Oppenheimer production and the questions raised in the play. The panel of faculty include Robert Westbrook, history; Regina Demina, physics & astronomy; and Jonathan Tresan, philosophy. The panel discussion is free and open to all.

The production runs Thursday through Saturday (October 12–14) and Wednesday through Saturday (October 18–21) starting at 7 p.m. There are also 2 p.m. matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday (October 14 and 15). All performances take place in Todd Theater on the University of Rochester’s River Campus. Tickets are $8 for University of Rochester students, $12 for alumni, faculty, staff, and for seniors (65+), and $15 for the general public. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling the box office at (585) 275-4088. Tickets may also be purchased up to an hour before each performance at the box office.

The play—a courtroom-style drama—chronicles the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing in which the physicist Oppenheimer—an influential advisor to the commission who played a lead role in the development of the atomic bomb—is called before the commission to account for his earlier left-wing sympathies, and to have his security clearance evaluated. The story is taken directly from the transcripts of the infamous hearing, which took place at the height of the McCarthy era.

The first attempt at docudrama for the International Theatre Program, Maister thought this form of theater would be advantageous for students to explore.

“The complex narrative takes a look at the whole notion of the responsibility of the engineer; the physicists,” says Maister. “What happens if you’re a scientist and your discoveries lead to ends that you did not intend, or are co-opted by the military?”

Ewan Shannon ’20 takes on the challenging role of John Lansdale Jr., the head of security for the Manhattan Project. “It’s about twisting and playing with words to try and get the upper hand on somebody,” says Shannon, who majors in archeology and anthropology. “Understanding Lansdale is to recognize where his morals lie and what’s the difference, if there was any, between his personal beliefs and his official duties.”

In this production, most of the students, at some point, take a turn at portraying Oppenheimer. “In getting to play both the accuser and the accused,” Maister says, “student actors viscerally experience the predicament in which Oppenheimer and, indeed, our whole society found itself being judged in 1954. Something that has echoes in today’s political climate.”

The production’s costume designer is Tilly Grimes, whose design has been seen in Boo Kilebrew’s Romance Novels for Beginners at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds in New York City. The lighting design is by Solomon Weisbard. Sound design and music are by Obadiah Eaves, whose credits include Country House, Shining City, and The Assembled Parties. Joshua Thorson, assistant professor of fine art at Rochester Institute of Technology, is the production’s video designer, and Alexa Scott-Flaherty, adjunct lecturer at Rochester, is acting and voice coach.

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Category: The Arts