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|A CurtainUp Review
Louis Slotin Sonata
By Aimee Zygmonski
Slotin's hand slipped in manipulating the screwdriver. The shell halves connected. The eight other men at the test site said they saw a blue glow. Nine days later Slotin was dead, having recveived the bulk of the radiation from the ensuing nuclear reaction.
So begins Louis Slotin Sonata, by Paul Mullin, at Ensemble Studio Theatre, a collaboration between Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, as part of "First Light 2001," a festival exploring the worlds of science and technology through theater.
The play follows the nine days leading to his death, replaying the fatal slip over and over again. These replays are interspersed with readings fromresearch papers and government telegrams; also visits from God, Einstein -- and Slotin's ghostly friend, Harry Daglian who was killed from a radiation accident a year before.
William Salyers' Slotin is a man quick of wit and quick of word. He vividly connects with the audience with a delightful, breezy manner. This makes it all the harder to watch him die slowly and painfully.
In his agonizing last days, Slotin develops an affection for his nurse Annamae (endearingly played by Amy Love). Their scenes together offer a touching glimpse into the inherent dangers of being a nuclear physicist. "I don't see what's so amazing about something that can do so much damage," Annamae meekly tells Slotin. And, as Slotin's doctor reads out a laundry list of Slotin's ailments (arms covered in blistering sores, green bile, intense stomach pains), the audience may well wonder with Annamae whether discovery was worth the price it exacted.
Mullin uses a variety of theatrical devices to present Slotin's story:
At times there are too many devices at work, so that some of the more realistic and simple conversations feel out of place. The "Neutron Craze" dance number at the top of Act II, complete with scientists in lab coats singing of the joys of thermodynamics, though amusing, doesn't add anything to the overall arc of Slotin's story.
Thankfully, the play organizes itself toward the end, with a particularly stirring scene in which Slotin's friend and confidant Phil Morrison must convince Slotin's father to let them autopsy his son's body (forbidden by Jewish custom). This is followed by the pathologist reading the autopsy report as Israel Slotin (played with humor and tenderness by Joel Rooks) says Kaddish for his dead son.
The hardworking ensemble plays three to five characters each, effortlessly slipping from one to the next. I've already mentioned Amy Love's endearing performance as Annamae . Allyn Burrows as Morrison, is another standout, providing the necessary compassion in a world where science and research tend to override consideration for human emotions.
When presented at Los Alamos on March 24 to an auditorium of scientists and theatergoers alike, the play was criticized by some of the lab veterans who believed that it was a disservice to the Manhattan Project. However, a discerning audience member can choose to filter out the confusing additions of neutron dances and Mengele references, and look at the piece objectively. Slotin's story is worth telling. Rather than a disservice, it is a homage to the many scientists who dedicated their lives to learning more about nuclear energy, and unfortunately, also suffered mortal consequences.