Sullivan Jones (Credit:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
responds with that familiar line of ex-Nazis: “I never saw anything.”
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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