The playwright has made two problematic choices in writing The Winning Side. The play’s non-linear time sequence is quite challenging. Beginning and ending with the Apollo 11 moon launch on July 16, 1969, the play alternates between scenes of von Braun’s time in Paris moving forward from 1943 to 1945 and scenes that move backward from America in 1969 to Europe in 1945. Despite Sho Hanafusa’s animated timeline which always shows us what year we are in and what year we are traveling to between the scenes, this forwards and backwards structure is quite difficult to keep straight through much of the play, particularly as von Braun will say one thing and then we find out in another scene that he has lied or not told the complete truth. It becomes a giant puzzle to figure which came first.
According to the script’s note on casting, the author states “It is important to me that the actors cast in The Winning Side reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the community in which the play is being presented. Historical look-alikes are neither required nor desired.” Accordingly director Ron Russell has cast all three men in the play with African-American actors. This does not take into consideration that we have seen pictures of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as Walt Disney and Neil Armstrong. Some of the audience may have seen photos of the German born von Braun or the film of his life story, I Am at the Stars.
One can suspend one’s disbelief but with historical characters who have had real identities in modern times it does take a while to get used to the device. Here it seems more of a stunt to make all of the male characters Black than warranted by the material. So too the choice of accents: although the French characters generally have excellent French accents, the actor playing von Braun has only a very slight German accent that comes and goes which is distracting. All or none might have been a better choice.
Nevertheless, the play is a fascinating investigation into a very complex and complicated man, one who was also a mathematical genius. Described by the script as impossibly good-looking and charming, Sullivan Jones as von Braun is both these things, along with playing him as being arrogant, elitist, artistic and single-minded. We first see von Braun in Paris going backstage at a cabaret to visit an actress he admires, Margot Moreau, a fictionalized portrait of a woman that he actually had an affair with during 1943 – 1945 while he was running the German Army Rocket Center in Peenemünde and overseeing rocket sites in France.
As portrayed by Melissa Friedman, Margot is a temperamental and tempestuous actress/singer, moral to her very core, who has ethical problems becoming involved with the charming German in Paris during W.W. II. Although he tells her that he is only an engineer, she is shocked to discover first that he is a member of the Nazi Party and later that he owns an SS uniform. She also becomes aware of the thousands who died in slave labor making his rockets possible, but von Braun declares he never saw any proof of this. He tells her he plans to marry her but does not act on the proposal. We also see her in a Paris production of “Antigone,” which reinforces the themes of moral responsibility and integrity.
The second strand of the play mainly set in America dramatizes von Braun’s interactions with Major Taggert (a fine confident Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.), a composite of several men that he had to deal with in the course of his work in the U.S. space program with a compromised security status and the problems over his former Nazi status in Germany.
We also see him in contact with Walt Disney who featured him in a record-breaking television show, Man in Space, and film director J. Lee Thompson who in 1960 filmed his life story, I Aim at the Stars. A meeting in 1961 with plain spoken Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson after the Soviets beat the U.S. into putting the first man in space is quite funny. Devin E. Haqq shows his versatility playing Disney, Thompson, Johnson, Kennedy, Armstrong and ten other characters. His lack of accents notwithstanding, he does differentiate these men extremely well.
Ron Russell’s direction is both assured and astute bringing out three-dimensional characterizations for these mainly historic figures. Chika Shimizu’s unit setting with its metal scaffolding on either end of the wide Acorn Theatre stage is both unattractive and distracting as the scaffolds are hardly used and are always part of yet another location. Her projections are fine as far as they go but more of them might have helped in creating the atmosphere. Betsy Rugg-Hinds’ minimal costume changes for all but Ms. Friedman works pretty well, with Haqq wearing slight additions for some of his characters. Director Russell’s work as sound designer includes period songs between the scenes that clue us into the many time periods that are called for by the playwright. Tom Lehrer’s devastatingly satirical song, “Wernher von Braun,” is put to good use as the opening of the second act.
In dramatizing the story of Wernher von Braun, James Wallert’s The Winning Side makes compelling the concept of ethics in science: should we admire a mathematical genius who has had antithetical political ideas or are his scientific achievements too valuable to hold his former political beliefs against him? Though the program notes indicate that the play “is a work of dramatic fiction and liberties have been taken,” The Winning Side does show us a genius at work who was also an opportunist and changed his stories depending on what suited the occasion. As such it has become relevant all over again in an era when truth counts for so little and men of morality are all the more valuable.
The Winning Side (extended through November 4, 2018)
Epic Theatre Ensemble
Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.epictheatreensemble.org
Running time: two hours and ten minutes with one intermission