What happens when the nation’s top scientists are forced to lead ordinary lives after a botched experiment? In Obedient Steel, a new play from the Tugboat Collective presented at the HERE Arts Center, we trace the downfall of four brilliant young physicists. When we first encounter them, they are beginning their work at a 1950’s era secret lab compound, where they have been charged with the task of creating the world’s most powerful weapon for the U.S. government. About half of the show if devoted to the scientists’ creative, professional, and romantic lives at the compound. It feels a bit like being at a top-secret space camp for adults instead of the restrictive, high-stakes environment we would expect, and that’s part of the reason why the scientists are barred from ever working for the government again after a nuclear test goes awry.
But it’s not all bad, eh? I mean, who in the 1950’s doesn’t want a steady job, like teaching high school or selling life insurance, with a beautiful wife in tow and a well-kept suburban home? (Full disclosure, that was my dream life until like, three years ago) Years pass steadily and the scientists find themselves desperate to break away from their new lives.
In a way, Obedient Steel mirrors a lot of the issues facing the current generation as they enter a staggering workforce. The lab compound in the play is a fun, collaborative, learning environment where the researchers do what they’re best at and excel at it. It not only protects government secrets, it protects the men and women in it from the outer world. It’s not unlike a good ol’fashioned colleges experience. Life outside of these institutions can often feel aimless, mundane, and frivolous, particularly for these brilliant minds.
The acting is most engaging in the show’s first half. A great deal of the emotional resonance in the play’s second half comes from some clever stagework that enables us to never lose focus on the characters’ despair. Since the staging and the excellent dialogue work in tandem so well, I felt like the second act could have been shorter– some scenes felt repetitious or dragged out. I also wish that the two halves weren’t so starkly different from each other. These scientists are working on the most deadly weapon of all time, for goodness sake, and there is never a portentous tone in the first act nor discussion of the project’s moral repercussions. Similarly, maybe a little humor in the second half could break up some of the reiterating sadness. There are also frequent moments when the characters speak directly to audience members, sometimes handing them props to hold on to or asking for quick yes/no responses. This lightened the mood significantly in the first act, though these moments were too bunched up in the play’s openings scenes. Perhaps spreading moments like these throughout the play would help create a more consistent mood.
Obedient Steel remains, however, a thoughtful piece about what happens when your life is just starting and you’ve already reached your peak. The cast truly bring the characters’ journeys to realistic fruition with the help of some excellent staging and a versatile script. Tickets are available at Here.org through November 24!