Keith Reddin’s Some Brighter Distance (in a world premiere at City Theatre, under Tracy Brigden’s direction) tells the story of German rocket engineer Arthur Rudolph (Jonathan Tindle), who, along with physicist Wernher von Braun (David Whalen) and a contingent of other German scientists, surrendered to the US at the end of WWII in order to bargain his scientific expertise for his safety. Rudolph and the other scientists were allowed into the US under a program dubbed “Operation Paperclip,” which required they first be investigated and cleared of any material involvement in the Nazi regime. They came to play an important role in Cold War history: once here, the German engineers worked for NASA in designing and developing the rockets that made the US the first country to land a man on the moon.
But history is complicated, Reddin’s play argues, and the story of Rudolph’s life reveals how morally muddled the scientific advances of the twentieth century were. All of the German scientists who surrendered to the Allies in 1945 were members of the Nazi Party (they would not have been permitted to work otherwise), so the question for US investigators just after the war hinged on determining the extent to which their involvement in Nazi activities was “material.” But those investigators had strong incentive to whitewash any evidence they uncovered, as they did not want the German advances in weaponry and space technology falling into the hands of the Soviets at the beginning of the Cold War. So although Mittelwerk, the underground site in Germany where Rudolph worked on developing rocket weapons for the German military, exploited slave labor from the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp, any evidence that Rudolph and his scientific colleagues might have committed war crimes seems to have been swept under the rug in those early postwar days, in order to facilitate their recruitment into US efforts to win the Cold War.
The play begins near the end of Rudolph’s life, in 1984: Rudolph has been summoned to Washington to be interviewed by Robert Davis (LeRoy McClain) of the Office of Special Investigations, which has uncovered evidence that he directly supervised the use of slave labor while scientific head of operations at Mittelwerk. Rudolph is offered a deal: if he renounces his US citizenship and leaves the country, he can keep his pension and benefits and escape further prosecution. The play then hops back in history to paint a picture of a life that seems to have been pretty much full of similar non-choices: he joins the Nazi Party in the 1930s because not to do so would make it impossible to work; he marries his wife, the long-suffering Marta (Elizabeth Rich) because she seems to be the only woman who can connect with his lack of emotional intelligence; he accepts Von Braun’s invitation to join the German military rocket weaponry team because there is no other work available; and he cagily crafts his war history for a conciliatory US Army investigator, Major Turner (Matthew Stocke), in order to finagle his emigration from Germany. The cumulative effect is of a man who has been the object rather than the subject of history, and it’s one that is underlined by Tindle’s Mr. Magoo-like interpretation of the role and Robert C.T. Steele’s appropriately frumpy costuming. Tindle’s Rudolph is a man who can see a path to landing on the moon but is curiously shortsighted about virtually everything else around him.
Reddin shows his mastery of craft in the structuring of the play – time shifts around his central character as the story flashes back and forth between 1984 and a series of milestones in Rudolph’s personal and professional life. Director Tracy Brigden uses her staging to highlight this structure: Tindle never leaves the stage, and often remains at its center, while the rest of the actors glide in and out around him. The effect is the theatrical equivalent of cinematic cuts, and it not only keeps the action fluid but also echoes one of the play’s primary cultural references, Fritz Lang’s 1929 silent film Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon). Gianni Downs’s set – a backdrop wall of white file boxes symbolizing the weight of history and documentation about to crash down on Rudolph’s life – not only frames the story aptly, but also serves as a screen for Jordan Harrison’s canny projection design, which helps ground each scene in time, place, and cultural moment.
The play’s story is absorbing, but its payoff is elusive. This is partly because its central dilemma feels both diffuse and overly familiar. We’ve seen the play about the scientist who capitulates to authority in order to save his skin and advance his field (Brecht may have written it first, in Galileo Galilei, but there are other examples, too). We’re also familiar with the stories of Nazi collaborators who managed to hide their culpability, escape investigation, and live out happy, thriving lives in the postwar era. That the US government would conveniently overlook a German rocket scientist’s wartime record in order to keep him from working for the USSR at the start of the Cold War will neither surprise nor shock cynical 21st century American viewers, and while there is black humor in Rudolph’s Catch-22 situation, I don’t think the play intends to be a comedy, even in the Keseyian mode (I realize I just jumped from one 20th-century American black humorist to another, but I trust you followed me there).
Particularly puzzling is the lack of psychological and moral depth we find in Rudolph, who seems mainly to express the kinds of excuses any of us might trot out to rationalize not bucking authority – variants on the familiar “I was just following orders.” That’s good food for thought, and I did find myself digging into my own conscience to wonder if I would have the moral courage to resist and risk my own life and comfort, if faced with similar non-choices. But as the play points out, Rudolph did not merely turn a blind eye to atrocities, which is bad enough, but something many of us might be able to imagine ourselves doing in extreme circumstances as well; evidence suggests he actively gave orders for the torture and murder of concentration camp prisoners. Some Brighter Distance seems to want to garner audience sympathy for a man who, when all is said and done, remains steadfast in his insistence that the ends have justified the means, and that the achievement of grand intellectual ambition, no matter the cost, is the best purpose of a life. That’s a tough order.