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The Winning Side

Sullivan Jones (Credit: Carol Rosegg)



                                   By Ron Cohen


He was a genius scientist whose dream of space travel sent an American to the moon. He was a genius scientist whose dream of space travel created the rockets for Nazi Germany that rained death and destruction on London and Belgium during the final year of World War II.


Those are the two sides of Wernher Von Braun, and they constitute a moral riddle that ‘s explored with pungency and great theatrical savvy in James Wallert’s drama The Winning Side, being given an impressive production by Epic Theatre Ensemble. It also deals with the upending of the moral compass of the United States government in its dealings with Von Braun.


Wallert, co-artistic director of Epic, received a Smithsonian Fellowship in 2015 to research the play, the program says. While the work is a dramatic fiction, Wallert adds in an author’s note, the central facts, themes and characters are drawn from historical accounts.


The play cannily weaves together two story lines. One deals with a love affair Von Braun had with a French woman during World War II in occupied Paris, while he was developing V2 rocket launch sites in France. The other takes us through his years in America, after his surrender to the Americans – “the winning side” -- at the war’s end and his work for the military and NASA, culminating in the first landing on the moon. The script skips back and forth in time, causing a bit of chronological confusion at first, but the dramatic logic linking the scenes quickly takes hold.


Melissa Friedman, Sullivan Jones


As told in the play, the love affair is a deeply felt liaison with a French actress named Margot Moreau, who gives into Von Braun’s advances despite her fierce hatred of the Nazis. He presents himself to her as civilian contractor working on scientific projects, only later does she learn of his Nazi party membership and eventually his affiliation with the SS. Meanwhile, she keeps the affair a secret for fear of being labeled a collaborator. Once France is liberated, however, she is outed, reviled and imprisoned for a time. She travels to French Morocco where the play’s last word of her has her living in poverty.


Her fate is in sharp contrast to that of Von Braun, who in the U.S. is shown gaining fame and fortune, almost idolatry for his work. We see him winning citizenship and honors; a Hollywood movie is made of his life story; he is featured in a widely watched television show Man in Space, produced by Walt Disney. But finally, the play takes us behind the public face of this career, showing how in negotiating for his services, the U.S. overlooked the depth of his culpability in his working with the Nazis, his responsibility for the concentration camp slave labor that was used to build the rockets.



The character U.S. Army Major Taggert, who is often at Von Braun’s side in the play as his liaison with the U.S., suggests that Von Braun could be brought before the Nuremberg war criminal tribunal (which he never was). Taggert confronts the scientist with, “Twenty thousand dead in that factory. Twenty thousand! Your rocket killed more people on the assembly line than it did on the battlefield.”


Devin E. Haqq, Sullivan Jones, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.


Von Braun responds with that familiar line of ex-Nazis: “I never saw anything.”


Despite the public relations campaign, the play shows the cynicism about Von Braun that did turn up in the U.S.   At the start of the second act, in a Brechtian-like section entitled “Intermezzo,” the ensemble performs a lively version of satirist Tom Lehrer’s song “Wernher Von Braun.” It goes in part: “Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,/Say rather that he’s apolitical./”Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? /That’s not my department,” says Wernher Von Braun


Devin E. Haqq, Sullivan Jones, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr


In the play’s final moments, the playwright wraps up the moral perplexities in a long burst of eloquence. Addressing the audience directly, Taggert cites the Great Pyramid of Giza and the lives it took to build it, in an apparent comparison to the wonder of space travel. “Is it worth it?” he asks. “It’s tough. It is. I get it. For those of us who have seen behind the curtain and know precisely how it came to be, this will never be a miracle. For us, all this is, if you’ll pardon the expression, merely theatre. That’s the sacrifice we’re called upon to make. Because for the rest of humanity this…”


Now a video projection of Neil Armstrong stepping down from Apollo 11 to become the first man on the moon fills the back of the stage, while the moment is also enacted on stage. Taggert continues, “A miracle that will lure the brightest young minds to devote themselves to the study of science and engineering, inspire the bravest young men to commit themselves to fight and die for their country, and unite the world for a single moment in time so that they may behold wonder, thrill, celebrate and bear witness.”


Whether you agree or not, it still provides an inspiring finish to a provocative and informative play. Ron Russell, who is Epic’s executive director, has directed it masterfully, giving the production – if you’ll excuse the redundancy – an epic feel, and he’s done it with the economic employment of only four actors. As Von Braun, Sullivan Jones is a strapping figure, embodying the man’s good looks and sexual magnetism that almost overcome his sense of self-importance, although he on occasion tries to modify that. “I am exceptional,” he says at one point. “Not for who I am, but for what I’m doing.” On the nit-picking side, Jones’s German accent results in some strange vowel sounds, but they’re quickly forgotten about in the overall effectiveness of his performance.


Melissa Friedman, Epic’s other co-artistic director, makes an appealing Margo, melding a Parisian vivacity with a backbone of steel, and when in a monologue late in the play she reveals what happened to her after the war, she is heart-breaking. As Taggert, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., projects a shrewd but benevolent authority, and last but hardly least, Devin E. Haqq takes on umpteen other characters – from Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy to Walt Disney and Heinrich Himmler -- sketching them in deftly, often with no change in costume to help.


The physical production aids the storytelling mightily. Chika Shimizu’s set design places a scaffolding platform at either side of the stage, and under Cat Tate Starmer’s lighting, they provide a variety of well-defined playing areas while suggesting space-age tech. Her large-scale projections covering the rear wall help define time and place in the back and forth progression of the scenes, as does director Russell’s sound design, from the roar of engines to the pop music of the changing years.


Betsy Rugg-Hinds’ costumes demonstrate some interesting choices. Except when he strips down to his skivvies for a bedroom scene, Jones’s Von Braun wears the same well-fitting double-breasted suit throughout. Perhaps it’s to indicate his iconic status, his unchanging dedication to science, despite the expediency that governed his choices. In contrast, Friedman’s Margo has a variety of gowns, nicely showing an attempt to maintain a sense of chic under wartime duress.


Also interesting is the casting, even with the increasing evidence of color-blind casting on New York stages. All three male roles are played by African-American actors. When asked about this at a talk-back, director Russell said this was more happenstance than statement-making. As a New York company and one that works with schools as well, Epic attempts to put on stage a cast that reflects the city’s diverse population. But in this case, he said, the circumstances were that Simmons and Haqq were Epic company members and after extensive auditions, Jones was simply the best candidate for the role.


Jones’s performance affirmed the wisdom of the casting decision, and the matter of race almost immediately became a non-issue in performance, as the actors revealed in quick order the essence of each character played.  


Also learned at the talk-back: Moira’s aforementioned monologue detailing her post-war misfortune was almost verbatim a letter found in Von Braun’s personal files by his biographer Michael J. Neufeld. While nothing much further could be found out about the woman, obviously an ex-love of Von Braun, the letter, with a change in name, provided the basis for Wallert’s fictionalized accounting of the love affair.


So, you see, you theatergoers who routinely avoid talkbacks; you might want to think twice. Especially when attending a play that prompts serious thinking along with an absorbing story.


Review posted October 2018

Off-Broadway play

Playing at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre

410 West 42nd Street

Playing until Nov. 4th