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Copenhagen: Stanford play examines what may have happened when two of the world's foremost physicists met in the dark hours of World War II

The play explores the relationship of two scientists, bound by physics, friendship and war.

Steve Fyffe

Bay Area actors Peter Ruocco and Julian Lopez-Morillas play the scientists in the production.

It was 1941; the cruel German occupation of Europe was in full sway. Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist, one of the best scientists in the rapidly advancing field, traveled to occupied Copenhagen to visit an old friend and equally prominent physicist, the Dane Niels Bohr. The conversation turned to the theoretical, frightening possibility of building an all-powerful bomb from the radioactive metal uranium.

That's the unsettling backdrop for Copenhagen, Michael Frayn's play about what happened, or might have happened, during those wartime conversations. The New York Times called it "the most invigorating and ingenious play of ideas in many a year. An electrifying work of art."

Copenhagen will be performed at Stanford's Pigott Theater in Memorial Auditorium Dec. 1-3. The performances are sold out, but there is a wait list policy for sold-out shows.

The play attempts to "figure out exactly what happened between them, what kind of ethical and moral dilemmas they faced and what their individual and collective responsibilities were in the development of nuclear weapons," said director Rush Rehm, a Stanford professor of classics and drama. It stars Bay Area actors Julian Lopez-Morillas, Peter Ruocco and Courtney Walsh. 

The play is presented by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society as part of its "Ethics & War" events series, in collaboration with Stanford Summer Theater and Stanford Drama.

"The drama is both historical and personal," said Rehm. "And ultimately, the drama is one that is left with us in the audience, because the real issue in the play is, 'What are we meant to do with the legacy of all the work that was done on the atom?' "

The sad result of the hopes for boundless nuclear energy is that the world now has tens of thousands of nuclear weapons far more powerful that the one that obliterated Hiroshima, he said.