Review: COPENHAGEN at The Gaslight Studio

St. Louis Actors' Studio Production Runs through February 25th

By: Feb. 12, 2024

Michael Frayn’s COPENHAGEN is a fictional post-mortem account of the 1941 visit of Werner Heisenberg to his friend and mentor Niels Bohr. What Heisenberg’s and Bohr discussed during that visit to German occupied Denmark is unknown, but Frayn’s script examines the potential reasons and several possibilities for the visit from the perspective of both physicists and Bohr’s wife, Margrethe.  

While Frayn’s work includes lengthy discussion of the science of atomic energy, fission, and the potential for creating weapons of mass destruction, the play has many underlying subtexts that create palpable tension. Borg and Heisenberg's relationship bordered on familial. Heisenberg was, at a minimum, Borg’s favorite student. He looked at Heisenberg as an extension of his children. Now each of the men’s Nationalism, Borg a Dane, and Heisenberg a German, has placed them on opposite sides of the German occupation of Europe. Borg describes himself as half-jew and is fully aware of the threat of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing. His protege, a Lutheran Christian, is now working for the German armed forces in the development of nuclear weapons. Borg’s wife, Margrethe, is the most suspicious of Heisenberg’s visit. She is emotionally detached from Heisenberg, and while tolerant of her husband’s relationship with the other scientist, she does exhibit some underlying envy stemming from Borg’s emotional attachment to Heisenberg.  

Wayne Salomon’s crisp direction of St. Louis Actors’ Studios current production of COPENHAGEN deeply explores the personal connections between the triangle of characters and keeps the tension high. He has prepared his actors to take on the script’s substantial scientific and mathematical jargon and aptly presents the political climate of World War II. What makes this production of COPENHAGEN a compelling piece of theatre is Salomon’s focus on the interpersonal relationships and the feeling of betrayal between the characters, layered with the moralistic concerns of what it means to use their scientific research in the development of a weapon. Salomon has taken a jargon-laden complex script and created an entertaining production that is focused on the characters' sentiments and perspectives.  

All three actors deliver dynamic performances as they examine the multiple options for Heisenberg’s visit that all boil down to the same emotional reaction irrespective of the explanation for the visit. Aaron Orion Baker (Bohr,) Joel Moses (Heisenberg,) and Lizi Watt (Margrethe,) deliver authentic performances as the physicists and Bohr’s spouse. Baker and Moses handle the extensive discussion of modern atomic theory as if they were decorated academicians exploring the potential ramifications of their research. While all three handle the arduous scripted dialogue magnificently it is the emotionally taxing personal connection the actors portray that makes this production soar. It is Baker, Moses and Watt’s presentation and characterizations that keep you hanging on every word of the play’s weighty dialogue.  

There are several references in Frayn’s script to the Allied Forces and Oppenheimer’s work in the United States. St. Louis Actors’ studio’s decision to present COPENHAGEN closely aligned to the “Oppenheimer” film release may have been a strategic programming choice, or perhaps it was coincidental.  But those who enjoyed “Oppenheimer,” should not miss this production of COPENHAGEN at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.  

The script is rich with scientific banter, repetitive and very talky. The running time with intermission exceeds 2-½ hours but the show flies by thanks to Salomon’s brisk direction and the tremendous performances of the three actors. Do not dissuade yourself from seeing this production based on the script’s complexities. This is a wonderful production with interesting characters that provides a different perspective to the nuclear arms race during World War II.  

COPENHAGEN is presented by The St. Louis Actor’s Studio in the intimate space of The Gaslight Theatre through February 25th. Click the link below for tickets.  

PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Huber