If the Radiance of a Thousand Suns: The Hiroshima Project

Bailiwick Repertory

Maybe it’s the utter impersonality with which Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that has made the events so difficult to dramatize. The fact that a pilot, on orders from Washington, could in a matter of moments obliterate four square miles of city, 70,000 buildings and 80,000 lives, without ever seeing the face of one of his victims, further revolutionized the act of war, which had once been the most ferocious and brutal of personal conflicts, making it something horrifyingly indifferent.

Nearly 50 years to the day after the devastation of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the topic remains highly charged and explosively political, as op-ed writers and opponents of museum exhibits furiously debate whether the use of the bomb was a necessary evil or a gratuitous show of force, whether the Japanese emperor was ready to surrender or the atomic bomb was the only thing he could understand, or whether we who were born after 1945, as New York Times columnist Russell Baker suggests, have no business discussing it at all. But the fury that surrounds the debate over the end of World War II has seldom been matched in dramatic treatments of it. Eyewitness accounts of the dropping of the atomic bomb and its aftermath, like those of John Hersey and Ota Yoko, remain immeasurably shocking. But the sheer magnitude of the incident’s horror has thwarted those who have tried to weave that horror into a traditional dramatic framework.

The ill-fated love affair between a Japanese businessman and a French actress in Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras’ haunting elegy, Hiroshima, mon amour, serves only to point up the infinitesimal nature of individual tragedies in the face of global ones. Said Duras in an interview concerning the film, “The only thing you can talk about is the impossibility of talking about [Hiroshima].” Portraying simple human interactions in the wake of Nagasaki likewise proved too daunting for legendary Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa, whose patchwork story of Japanese children vacationing with their grandmother who’d survived the blast in his 1991 Rhapsody in August pales beside the profoundly silent images he uses to represent memories of the atomic bomb.

Bailiwick Repertory, in its clunkily titled dramatic tapestry If the Radiance of a Thousand Suns: The Hiroshima Project, attempts no fewer than four approaches to creating drama out of atomic disaster, but each of these approaches remains almost totally devoid of human interaction, creating a theater piece that is comprehensive and informative but also remarkably stagnant. What Bailiwick’s four authors–Anne McGravie, Dwight Okita, Nicholas Patricca, and director David Zak– have created by interweaving monologues, first-person accounts, letters, and songs (while virtually eliminating dialogue) is a technically proficient but facile recitation that would probably function best as a high school assembly.

Staged simply by Zak in a documentary style reminiscent of Peter Weiss’s treatment of the Nazi war crime trials in The Investigation, eight black-clad actors switch among a variety of roles in Zak’s assemblage of personal accounts from American military officials plus text from this year’s canceled Smithsonian exhibit about the Enola Gay, in Patricca’s mini-play about a physicist’s memories of Los Alamos, in Okita’s short musical about a Japanese minister and the man who piloted the Enola Gay, and in McGravie’s selections from survivors’ poems and a correspondence between two childhood friends from Japan and Great Britain. Of the four authors, McGravie is probably most successful; the letters she’s assembled have a significant theatrical impact because they bear the stamp of small personal truths. (“I think world ends before war ends,” one says.) And her poems create startling images of the effects of the atomic blast. Caroline Luat is particularly captivating and believable in the letter-reading sequence as she grows from a young, frightened girl in Hiroshima whose life is shattered by the bomb to a strong-willed peace activist.

Patricca’s play, which concerns the Los Alamos physicist whose enthusiasm turns to shock and disbelief upon visiting the bomb site, is filled to the brim with well-researched facts and figures, but they don’t make for effective drama, particularly as performed here. Directing young actors to try to imitate historical figures the physicist encounters such as Albert Einstein, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Harry Truman turns solemnity into absurdity. The “oy vey” accents employed for German-born scientists are simply ridiculous. Joel Sanchez makes for a credible physicist, but Patricca’s hyperintellectual ruminations on the nature of God and the meaning of light feel forced into Sanchez’s mouth by a writer unwilling to work them into the framework of a plot. Patricca’s philosophical quandary about why Dante had chosen to locate the search for self-knowledge in hell in The Divine Comedy feels both forced and rehashed from his far superior play about Primo Levi, An Uncertain Hour.

Most peculiar is Dwight Okita’s musical, which turns an incredibly surreal moment in history–when a Japanese minister and survivor of Hiroshima met and shook hands with the man who dropped the bomb on his city, on an episode of This Is Your Life–into a cheesy musical. Overwhelming the other elements of the second act, the labored musical churns out stereotypes (the overbearing TV host who couldn’t care less about the survivors’ feelings) and predictable rhymes. Okita’s lyrics frequently seem overwrought and obvious. (“Think of the greater good, not your neighborhood,” the minister sings at one point.) Sometimes they don’t manage to fit any perceptible meter, rolling around haphazardly like a derailed Stephen Sondheim quatrain.

Struggling nobly to create a complete picture out of the mismatched parts, David Zak tosses in insightful quotations from the likes of H.G. Wells and Jean Toomer and mood-setting songs like “Amazing Grace.” Though he directs smoothly, his editorial approach comes straight out of the lecture hall. What he feels needs emphasis, he repeats. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s moving but oft-repeated “I am become Death, destroyer of Worlds” is said twice here, as is Patricca’s physicist’s observation about Dante’s quest for self-knowledge. And lest anyone forget who Oppenheimer is, virtually every time his name is brought up he’s referred to in school-report fashion as “father of the atomic bomb.”

What is most disappointing about Bailiwick’s written-by-committee effort is that it fails to venture any discussion of issues beyond what may be found every day this week on the op-ed pages of the newspapers. Attempting to assimilate a multitude of opinions, facts, and perspectives is a laudable goal in a book or documentary or museum exhibit. One wishes that the Smithsonian and Russell Baker and closed-minded special-interest groups were able to deal with it. But this approach is ill-suited to the stage, and at Bailiwick it practically does away with the one element that theater specifically could have added to the debate: the human one.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.