During last week’s State of the Union address, Tracy Brigden started when President Obama touted American ingenuity by referencing the moon landing. Coincidentally, Brigden’s theater company is readying the world premiere of a play about a scandalous but little-discussed aspect of the U.S. space program: It was led by German scientists whose Nazi pasts were scrubbed by the U.S. government.
Keith Reddin’s Some Brighter Distance tells the true story of Arthur Rudolph, one of more than 1,500 Germans brought here after World War II as part of Operation Paperclip. The group included Werner von Braun, the ex-Nazi later celebrated as “the father of the American space program.” But Rudolph — who directed the German lab that produced the V-2 rocket, and who was implicated in working thousands of slave laborers to death — was the only scientist to face prosecution for war crimes. In 1984, after decades of Cold War service to his adopted country, he and his wife, Marta, were deported to Germany. (He died in 1996.)
Reddin and Brigden met 25 years ago, in New York’s theater scene, and Some Brighter Distance is Reddin’s third world premiere at City Theatre during Brigden’s 15 years as artistic director (following 2007’s The Missionary Position and 2009’s Human Error). The play was commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to promote understanding of science. But Reddin, by phone from New York, says that science-heavy drafts gave way to a human story centering on Rudolph and Marta, and involving von Braun himself and government officials Turner and Davis.
The settings range from 1933, early in Rudolph’s career, through 1984, when he’s confronted with evidence of his crimes. The 35 scenes, some as brief as one page, are packed into a single, 90-minute act. The play’s theatricality includes quicksilver shifts between time periods, with characters often saying something in one decade that’s responded to in another. Projected historical footage helps set the scenes.
Visiting actors Jonathan Tindle and Elizabeth Rich play Arthur and Marta, with local favorite David Whalen as von Braun, Carnegie Mellon alum Matthew Stocke as Turner, and LeRoy McClain as Davis.
Brigden, who directs, says the play asks audiences to think for themselves about the characters’ morality. Reddin she says, “shows the shades of gray around these particular stories.”