May 2 2012 12:00 AM

Celebrated scientists square off in Riverwalk Theatre’s 'Copenhagen'


Imagine Niels Bohr, the famous Danish physicist who was a part of the Manhattan Project, and Werner Heisenberg, famous for the uncertainty theory, coming back from the dead, in someplace between “heaven and an atom,” to discuss what happened on that fateful day in 1941 when the two met in Copenhagen and had a falling out that ultimately destroyed their friendship.

If that sounds like the beginning of a drawn-out conversation about physics, Mary Job, director of Riverwalk Theatre’s “Copenhagen,” insists it’s not.

“I certainly think it would appeal to any one science-oriented, but it´s much broader than that,” Job said. Job saw Michael Frayn’s play when it premiered on Broadway in 2000 and has wanted to direct it ever since.

“Copenhagen” revolves around Heisenberg (Jeff Magnuson), Bohr (Rick Dethlefsen) and Bohr’s wife, Margrethe (Leann Dethlefsen), having a conversation to figure out what went wrong that day. Bohr and Heisenberg once had a very strong relationship: Bohr mentored Heisenberg and both admired each other’s work. What actually happened in Copenhagen has been debated by historians ever since, but their friendship was never the same. 

Historians have noted that Bohr, as a Jewish man, strongly objected to the work that Heisenberg did for the Nazis´ nuclear program, known as the Uranverein (“Uranium Club”). 

“The message was not only what was Heisenberg doing for the Nazis, but the irony of it is Niels Bohr, who was one of the 8,000 Jews that escaped (from Germany), went on to Los Alamos and designed the trigger for the Hiroshima bomb,” Job said. “Heisenberg, while he was condemned for his activities, whatever they may have been, actually never killed anyone.”

The uncertainty principle, which is the principle that the momentum and position of a particle cannot both be precisely determined at the same time, is something that Bohr and Heisenberg use in the play to discover what went wrong. 

“What these men discovered is the subatomic world is weird,” Job said. “It doesn´t do things we thought it was going to do. In many ways, what Michael Frayn is doing is saying that is also true of the human heart.” 

Job said the play definitely has some humorous moments as well. Margrethe’s role is essentially to break up the conversation at points and bring up things that the two physicists hadn’t thought of. 

“The movement of electrons in the atom, when you disturb them or observe them, they flip because they´re so tiny. (Margrethe) tends to be the person who suddenly says something or does something and it flips the way you do the scene.”

The set is only three people on a stage with three chairs, but Job said it’s a very psychologically and physiologically driven play. “It´s been a real pleasure digging into it and challenging myself and making it clear to the audience what happened. You don´t have to be an atomic physicist to understand this play.” 


May 4-13

Riverwalk Theatre

228 Museum Drive, Lansing

8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays

$12; $10 for seniors, students or military

(517) 482-5700