Three nights ago my old friend Louis Slotin and I each got one of those chances that only theatre can offer. He got to be alive while I got to be dead.
Everybody loves a dead playwright. The deader the better. Living ones are prickly and unpredictable. Actors and directors assume, sometimes rightly, that living playwrights have special insight into their plays because, well, they wrote them. Such insight can be resented as often as welcomed. Rehearsing a play is a process of discovery. No one wants to do an Easter egg hunt with someone they suspect knows where all the eggs are hidden. Smart playwrights understand when it’s time to walk out of the rehearsal hall so everyone else can breathe a little. They do this even though they know that they do not in fact have all the answers and really might like to stay and hunt for a little treasure too. In other words, a smart playwright knows when to roll over and play dead.
As I confessed in an earlier essay installment of these Chicago Posts, I have seen every full production of every play I have ever written. Often I have been part of the development process, even if the play has already had its world premiere. For Louis Slotin Sonata’s second production which was staged off–Broadway at Ensemble Studio Theatre I rewrote substantially, adding at least one scene, which I would later cut. I was living in New York at the time, so I could attend as many rehearsals as I wanted (and thought wise.) The same was true for the third production at the now dead Empty Space Theatre. By then I had moved to Seattle with my wife and kids and was able to work with the director, John Langs, to touch up the script, and most importantly, completely swap out the second act song, replacing it with the utterly original “Sodom Saki Shuffle” for which I wrote all new lyrics which the incomparable Mark Nichols then brilliantly scored. (Click this to hear the Seattle version of the Sodom Saki Shuffle.)
For this fourth production of the play at A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago , I had nearly zero input. I answered a few small script questions via email from the director Karen Kessler, but otherwise I really might as well have been blissfully departed. So I had no idea what I was in for when showed up at the storefront theatre in Old Town two nights ago. I have sat through productions I had nothing to do with that blew me away with their unforeseen brilliant interpretation of my script, and I have sat through shows so awful, so utterly antithetical to the play I imagined that I was struck quite literally catatonic with horror, rage and shame.
Louis Slotin was just about to leave Los Alamos when he had his accident. His bags were packed. He was showing the “crit test” to Alvin Graves, his replacement at Pajarito Canyon labs. The next day he planned to fly out to the South Pacific to see the Navy explode the very plutonium core he held in his hands. From there he would head to the University of Chicago to continue his studies in his original field of biology. Of course, Slotin never made it to Chicago. He never made it out of Los Alamos alive. They put his radiation-ravaged body in a lead-lined casket and shipped it to Winnipeg, Manitoba, his hometown.
Two nights ago I saw Louis Slotin alive in Chicago. He was occupying the body of an actor named Steven Schine, who through happy happenstance looks a hell of a lot like him. I watched as that long-ago dead man was forced to, via long distance phone call, break the news in Yiddish to his father Israel Slotin that he was dying. Israel was inhabiting the body of an eminently accomplished veteran Chicago actor named William J. Norris.
I watched those men relive a pain that no one should even have to live through once. I watched and I wept. But I also felt a great strange satisfaction. After 64 years Louie had arrived where he was going.
Maybe I should play dead more often.