Playwright: Paul Mullin. At: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. Phone: 312-943-8722; $25-$30. Runs through: Oct. 24
It's said that those who play with fire are likely to get burned, that those who live by the sword will die by it, and that the unheeded lessons of history are doomed to be repeated. Western culture is filled with futile warnings for the recurring numbers of techno-Frankensteins so enamored of their new toys that they overlook the human toll exacted by their expertise.
Following the detonation of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of the scientists whose research led to its invention got careless in the lab and triggered a nuclear explosion. Just a teeny-tiny onea pretty blue glow, exactly like Madame Curie described it, lasting no longer than a split second. It took nine days for Louis Slotin to die from the corrosive effects of the invisible attack, an excruciation allowing the 36-year-old WMD "putter-together" time to contemplate the irony of his early demise.
And there's irony aplenty in Paul Mullin's speculative drama, beginning with Slotin's announcement, minutes before his fatal fumble, that he's retiring from physics to pursue biology, one of the "life" sciences ( a premonition immediately detectable by B-movie fans ) . Cinematic cliché also inspires not one, but two, morphine-fueled fantasy sequencesthe first, a WWII-vintage propaganda film portraying Slotin as the hero that his military bosses proclaim him to be and, the second, a Yiddish-tinged vaudeville turn showcasing a dance called the "Sodom-Saki Shuffle." ( The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by a deity unconcerned with collateral damage are more than once compared to that of the Japanese cities. Indeed, Slotin's imagination even conjures Hitler's evil doctor Joseph Mengele reveling at the efficiency of a weapon capable of instantly producing a holocaust. )
These are accusations as searing as the images they invoke. But Karen Kessler has never shrunk from unpleasant observations, fearlessly directing an ensemble of storefront-circuit regulars led by Steve Schine as the nebbisher Slotinflanked by such stalwart character actors as Guy Massey, Doug Vickers, Christopher Walsh, Anita Deely and William J. Norriswho together document with a minimum of unnecessary bias the multiple ramifications of the incident under scrutiny.
And the "Sonata" in the title? Mullin's text is allegedly structured on symphonic lines, but playgoers are advised to ignore this affectation and heed instead the historical lesson to be found in the folly of a safely distant mass murderer thinking himself invulnerable to blowback.