In the powerful premiere of Uranium235, onstage through Saturday, Nov. 18, at The Magnetic Theatre, President Harry S. Truman wrestles with perhaps the most horrific decision of the 20th century — whether or not to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. If the device works, it might bring an immediate end to World War II, saving the lives of ground troops who would otherwise be forced into a bloody land invasion. But the untested bomb would also kill many Japanese civilians and sentence others to radiation poisoning. The bomb might even set the atmosphere ablaze and destroy the world.
Asheville-based playwright David Brendan Hopes, veteran director Andrew Gall and a capable cast handle this intense subject matter with skill, weaving a mix of history, drama, fantasy and even song and dance.
Uranium235 contains certain slang terms for the Japanese and the Germans that are considered offensive today. Those slurs fit the era (1945), but some in the audience may squirm when hearing them. A disclaimer is flashed on screen before the show, but it might have been useful to have this explanation delivered by a speaker before the performance.
Uranium235 mostly takes place in the president’s office. Mike Yow gives a convincing turn as Truman. A compelling Mary Katherine O’Donnell is his mysterious muse Clio, an unconventional character who counsels the president. The play has a surreal feel, largely thanks to O’Donnell’s strong performance. (She also shares her notable singing voice.)
Truman is fresh in office after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is overwhelmed and angry about only just being informed of the atomic weapon. Adding to his frustration, others have long known of its development.
Jim Weyhenmeyer plays Gen. Groves, who attempts to explain why the new president was not in on the big secret. Dan Clancy delivers as the cocky physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who helped build the bomb, but admits he doesn’t know if it will work.
A smaller story involves Jimmy (Kiran Bursenos), a young American student, who befriends Kiko (Lily Bartleson) a Japanese girl. Kiko dreams of her ancestral homeland, which is soon to be forever changed.
This heavy material is appropriately lightened by an ensemble of singer-dancers (Bartleson, Bursenos, Bia Holmes, Eugene Jones, Samuel Quinn Morris and Hannah Williams-Beaver), showcasing wartime songs. They sometimes enter from the back of the theater or even come offstage and into the audience.
Authentic-looking dress for all the players adds icing to the cake. A cheer is deserved for costume designer Kayren McKnight.
Gall, The Magnetic Theatre’s interim managing artistic director, and Hopes, whose works have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and London, have delivered another thought-provoking winner.
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St. themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Through Saturday, Nov. 18. Thursdays-Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m. $16