From the murderous Phantom in the musical Phantom of the Opera to the ex-convict Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, theater is notorious for making seemingly villainous characters appear sympathetic. But could anyone imagine feeling sympathy for an alleged Nazi war criminal? Some Brighter Distance, a new play premiering tonight at the City Theatre in the South Side, explores the possibility .
Some Brighter Distance tells the story of Arthur Rudolph, a German aerospace engineer who participated in Operation Paperclip, a post-WWII program in which scientists, technicians and researchers from former Nazi Germany were brought to the United States. Playwright Keith Reddin says Cold War-era American officials hoped these individuals would help the country achieve an edge over the Soviet Union in the Space Race.
“They [The US] felt like ‘We know these guys are Nazis, but better that they’re our Nazis than Russian Nazis,’” Reddin said.
Reddin reveals his interest in the history of Rudolph began when he found out that the rocket scientist was the only member of Operation Paperclip to later be tried as a war criminal. After he worked for NASA, he was investigated for war crimes relating to his early participation in the Nazi Party.
City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden was able to add what Reddin calls a “human element” to the play during its development. Before her input, he says the show focused more on the science and history of Rudolph rather than the emotional response his narrative triggers. Brigden refocused the play, bringing Rudolph’s wife, Martha, into the spotlight as well.
“The story of Arthur and Martha has really become the spine of the play,” Brigden said. “It does make you more sympathetic to this man because you realize he had a family, he had a wife, he had a daughter, and he was making choices like all of us have to make.”
While Reddin says the play does present a sympathetic view of Rudolph’s life, it also questions the concept of Operation Paperclip altogether. He hopes the play provokes the audience emotionally.
“An older woman came up to me after one performance and she said, ‘I’m Jewish, my family had to flee Europe to escape the Nazis,’” Reddin said. “’I saw this play and I found that I was sympathetic to this person and that disturbed me very much.’”
Some Brighter Distance runs from Jan. 30 - Feb. 14th at the City Theatre.
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