World Set Free, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Given the current winds of war, Bryn Magnus's play for Steppenwolf's Arts Exchange program is presciently timed. It depicts the secret effort by University of Chicago scientists in the spring of 1942 to produce the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction--the embryo of the atom bomb. World Set Free underscores the contagiousness of ideas, drawing parallels between the kinetic energy of 1940s swing-dancing popular culture and the atomic energy about to be harnessed. Two young working-class characters from Back of the Yards, hired to help assemble the reactor, provide access to the wartime world outside the lab.
The play is targeted to teenagers, making physics relevant and humanizing scientific titans by focusing on their personalities, disappointments, and crises of conscience. As portrayed by Patrick Dollymore, Leo Szilard is fussy, anxious, and eccentric--the Woody Allen of atomic physics. By contrast Enrico Fermi (Eli Goodman) is an effusive extrovert who loves life, youth, and America. The secrecy of the project is hard on them both--their cloistered existence is antithetical to the convention of scientific openness.
World Set Free is not great theater, but it does bring the history of science to life and challenges young audiences to consider the tension between responsibility to country and responsibility to conscience. Though it has a little eat-your-vegetables flavor, a spoonful of Woody Allen helps the atomic physics go down--in a most delightful way.