CHERNOBYL'S CHAIN REACTION HAS A THERAPEUTIC SIDE IN SOVIET'S PLAY
by Geoff Gehman
The Morning Call Newspaper Company
Saturday, January 13, 1990
The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station on April 26, 1986 produced a massive radioactive cloud and a deadly chain reaction stretching far beyond the Soviet Union. The first journalist on the scene, Vladimir Gubaryev, filed dutifully sober reports for Pravda and other state publications. But the science editor and engineer funneled his guts into "Sarcophagus," a play set in the radiation clinic where many Chernobyl victims were quarantined.
The colloquial and clinical drama premiered in the United States in 1987 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Bethlehem native Daniel Roebuck played the geiger-counter operative. Beginning Thursday, the Theatre Outlet will stage the work at Open Space Gallery in Allentown.
"Sarcophagus" is very earthy, complete with finger pointing, confessions and jokes. A divine fool essentially controls all three activities. The character Bessmertny opens as a guinea pig, for 487 days the only specimen in the medical experimental wing of the Institute of Radiation Safety. As the clinic fills with nastier cases -- a fireman, a cyclist, a security official's driver -- he becomes the play's conscience. Popping out of his cubicle like a "Laugh-In" regular, he flips the breeziest, sharpest thoughts, including the central charge: "Even the pyramids of Egypt will be just a handful of dust, yet the sarcophagus around this reactor of yours will still be standing."
One character dubs him "a hopeless optimist." To Genia Miller, the production's director and artistic director of the Theatre Outlet, "he's a breath of fresh air. He comes out to entertain, yet he has thematic lines. He's the best therapy for the patients: he's also good therapy for the audience."
So is Gubaryev's humane touch. The documentary writer and space-travel expert reduces the mind-boggling scope of the Chernobyl accident to the contamination of a cow, the destruction of a strawberry crop. Credit translator Michael Glenny for retaining the author's plainspoken zest. And for permitting Gubaryev's rational accusations to travel freely, toast glasnost, which lifted media blackouts on Soviet disasters. Not to mention the disaster itself: After all, it's tough to hush up a nuclear holocaust when Laplanders have to destroy poisoned deer.
As with its interpretation of "Waiting for Lefty," the Theatre Outlet conducted fact-finding missions. Miller says she and others earned valuable advice from touring a nuclear power plant. The virulently pro-nuclear guides, she says, illuminated the play's most officious characters. "They weren't as concerned about human life as the reactors," notes Miller, who calls herself an "active" opponent of nuclear energy.
After visiting a simulated control room, Miller continues, the tensions of the play's squabbling operators seemed more understandable. "There were so many buttons and so many screens for (the two operators) to look at," the director indicates. "If there were any accidents, and all of those lights were going off and flashing, how could one or two people deal with that?"
Other discoveries were made closer to home. Miller senses in "Sarcophagus" a familiar theatrical genre. Like Greek drama, she indicates, the play contains structural unities; out-of-sight violent events, and dangerous pride. Character by character, Gubaryev offers the causes for Reactor No. 4's explosion: tightwadding; bureaucratic monkeywrenches; a closed fail-safe system. In other words, "the great god atom" was disobeyed.
Miller also detects a well-known stage style. Like Chekhov's souls, many of Gubaryev's people dwell on and dismiss sicknesses. Miller not only has directed two episodes with a Chekhovian slant, she has marked scene changes with character themes from "Peter and the Wolf." Like Prokofiev, like Gubaryev, "we're trying to harness, not kill, the wolf," she indicates.
"Sarcophagus" is a heady choice for a small, young outfit like the Theatre Outlet. The strongest demands have included coordinating 19 performers; designing and building a tricky set, and consistently evoking the characters' deterioration while maintaining their natural resilience. According to Miller, Gubaryev is quite hopeful. Among other things, he offers the reality of stronger emotional bonds as well as the possibility of medical breakthroughs. Still, to prove how acting with constant suffering albatrossed the play, Miller organized a full-steam-ahead rehearsal.
"Regardless of all the little problems -- the human error -- this is a fight for life," Miller points out. "I've told the cast to fight that emotion of despair; don't just do it for the audience."
"Death is around you: when one person dies, you may be next," explains the director. "But when a person is in a tragic situation, the good side often comes out."
The Theatre Outlet's version of "Sarcophagus" will run Thursday through Feb. 3, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. A public reception will be held after the opening-night show. For information, call 432-8052.