Some Brighter Distance

SBD_playA world premiere is a major commitment for any theater company. City Theater Company chose well with Keith Reddin’s Some Brighter Distance, directed by Tracy Brigden, in her 15th year as City’s artistic director.The play’s title and opening characters both quote Goethe’s Faust, a reminder of bargains made with the devil and how hidden history can dismantle our perceived truths.

Brigden’s taut, 120-minute production has all the right stuff. Some Brighter Distance is a theatrical jewel whose facets reflect human nature, science, love, and recent history. At its heart is a man with a dream, Arthur Rudolph, a lesser-known tragic hero, credited with development of the Saturn V rocket that indeed propelled American astronauts to the moon.

Reddin’s script (revised for this premiere since originally commissioned and supported by The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project), sparkles in City’s version–as efficient as a space station kitchen–compact, practical, equipped with what’s needed for the trip. Moreover, Some Brighter Distance is recommended as an exemplary experience of theater, inviting us to imagine, open our minds, and leave somehow changed.

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Marta Rudolph (Elizabeth Rich) and Aurthur Rudolph (Jonathan Tindle)

Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting includes some rocket effects and illuminates a simple thrust stage. Scenic Designer Gianni Downs beautifully supports Brigden’ s effective pacing with seamless scene changes. A tall back wall is cleverly constructed of pale, identical file storage boxes stacked neatly from floor to ceiling. Its looming presence suggests policies, protocols, paperwork, and first-person accounts that hound rocket engineer Arthur Rudolph. Jordan Harrison’s projections recall unforgettable 20th century moments and images ranging from mathematical formulas on a chalkboard to iconic Nazi banners.

Rudolph’s 50-year journey begins as the Third Reich is born. His lifelong penchant for rockets fuels his career and aligns with the demand for both wartime and aeronautic applications. At the end of World War II, Rudolf and 117 of his German colleagues surrendered at the end of World War II. Under the innocuous label “Operation Paperclip” during President’s Truman post-war tenure, the rocket engineers were deemed clear of classification as “war criminals” to provide US citizenship. Through relocation, they saved themselves and helped to realize President Kennedy’s “new frontier” agenda and eventual NASA achievements.

At lights up, a retired Rudolph is interviewed by Department of Justice official Robert Davis, played with tenacity by Leroy McClain. Almost 40 years later, McClain tells Rudolph that newly found evidence connects him to war crimes. Asked renounce his citizenship and return to Germany, Rudolph insists he built rockets to protect his country and “to stop Communism”.

Evocative of C.P. Taylor’s play Good  and the 2006 film The Good German, Reddin’s play accurately mines history. The playbill’s relevant timeline of 1923-84 events lists that the German V-1 and V-2 rockets that took thousands of civilian lives in Europe were built by Buchenwald concentration camp prisoners. The Nazis moved to laborers to the secret Mittelwerk rocket facility where thousands worked and died.

Brigden aptly places the actors for conversations over time and space. Backstory and foreshadowing of both future and past smoothly intermingle. In the first flashback to 1946, the affable Major Turner, played with a light touch by Matthew Stocke, sets Rudolph up for his new life as American citizen with his wife Marta. In the 1969, the Rudolphs watch man land on the moon on their TV as Arthur confirms that Neil Armstrong flubbed his lines and Marta’s critiques NASA’s show. By 1984, Major Turner and McClain coexist, standing on either side of Rudolph, demanding two ways to sign his life away.

Brigden’s impeccable ensemble of five actors brings great depth even in short and expositional scenes and in straight delivery of Reddin’s deft comic relief. One senses these artists could present in any order the scenes Reddin has drawn from real life.

Robert C.T. Steele’s handsome costume choices work well for time traveling characters. From Marta’s hat to Von Braun’s Nazi medal, Steele’s details support historical accuracy and personalities.

Arthur Rudolph (Jonathan Tindle) and Wernher von Braun (David Whalen) in the World Premiere of Some Brigher Distance.
Arthur Rudolph (Jonathan Tindle) and Wernher von Braun (David Whalen)

Arthur Rudolph appears consistently as a kind of “rumpled professor”, but Jonathan Tindle aptly ages and youthens Arthur with subtle shifts through the years. He’s like Willy Loman, just doing his rocket scientist job while wishing for a more recognition. Onstage almost constantly, Tindle endears Arthur to us and we grow to like him.

Elizabeth Rich is Marta Rudolph, Arthur’s long-suffering spouse. Young Marta is pretty in pink, but Arthur, too obsessed with rockets to even remember her dress color, takes her repeatedly to a silent film about space travel. Rich warmly depicts smart and practical Marta’s unfailing belief in her husband’s talent and dream–to land a man on the moon. Rich reveals an impressive range: youthful devotion, middle-aged resignation, and mature recognition of a longtime burden of silent complicity.

David Whalen, a delightful chameleon on Pittsburgh stages, plays the dapper Wernher Von Braun, the likewise passionate rocket scientist who hires young Rudolph.  When the former Nazi expert narrates (true story) a Walt Disney short predicting space exploration, Whalen cunningly tempers his German accent and elicits giggles.

Von Braun seems always committed to the Nazi purpose. While Rudolph may be regretful at heart, he puts on blinders. Later, even Marta finally asks her husband if the accusations about how the rockets were built are really true.

The opening night audience hold their collective breath during the final DOJ interview scene, as silent as a full house could ever be.

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Major Turner (Matt Stocke), Marta Rudolph (Elizabeth Rich), Arthur Rudolph (Jonathan Tindle), Robert Davis (LeRoy McClain), Wernher Von Braun (David Whalen)

In a dream-like finale, the Rudolphs return to fantastical film of their early movie dates. Images dance on those innumerable anonymous boxes. What secrets are hidden there? Whose possessions might be stored inside? Will anyone remember the names or numbers in those dusty files? Arthur and Marta zoom in for kiss on their imagined moonscape.

Sure, dreams can come true. But at what price?

Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Photos: Kristi Jan Hoover

Some Brighter Distance runs on City’s Mainstage through February 14th. For tickets and more information, check out their website here.