by Vern Thiessen
Gateway Theatre, Richmond
February 3-19

Fritz Haber, though hardly a household name, makes a nearly ideal subject for biographical drama. Theatre is all about conflict and contradiction, and Haber’s life (1868-1934) featured those qualities in abundance. A German Jew, a convert-of-convenience to Christianity, a practical idealist, a Nobel Prize winning chemist and war criminal, devoted to helping humanity yet inventing poison gas warfare—all this and friend of Albert Einstein, who had his own issues regarding the uses to which his science was put. Alberta playwright Vern Thiessen manages to juggle these conflicts and more in his provocative Governor General’s Award winning script, now getting a run at Richmond's Gateway in a co-production with the Firehall Arts Centre where it opened in January.

In Thiessen’s play, Haber’s story is told by Einstein, onstage throughout, a sympathetic life-long friend despite the fact that he and Haber never agree on anything. Einstein remains a Jew whereas Haber converts to a Christianity in which he doesn’t believe so he can rise through the scientific and academic ranks of a Germany in which anti-Semitism is rife even before Hitler comes along. “I believe in science,” Haber insists. His ideal is applied, practical chemistry, whereas Einstein embraces a theoretical and imaginative physics. Haber gets his Nobel Prize first, developing a method of extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere to create fertilizer and thereby help feed the world. While the pacifist Einstein has no use for nationalism, Haber tries to out-Prussian the Prussians in his patriotism: “Above all, I am a German!” This and his ambition lead to his developing chlorine gas for use by German troops in the trenches of the First World War. And of course when the Nazis do come to power, neither his Christianity, his honours, nor his service to his country protects him from being sacked as a Jew. Nor can he keep his latest scientific development, the insecticide Zyklon B, from being used in the extermination camps. Ironically, though Einstein is right about almost everything, at the end we’re reminded that his scientific gift proved even more destructive than Haber’s.

Domestically, Haber’s ambition also betrays his first wife, Clara, a fellow chemist as passionate about the work as he is. Horrified by his decision to develop chlorine gas as a weapon, she kills herself and haunts the rest of his life. His Jewish second wife, Lotta, tries and fails like Einstein to convince the stubborn Haber that even he won’t be immune to the Nazi threat. Kathleen Duborg is excellent as Clara and Sarah Donald makes an appealing Lotta. Both women seem too good for the willfully blind, hypocritically self-serving Haber. As Haber’s long-time assistant Otto, Daniel Arnold always seems like a nice guy, even after he becomes a Nazi! David Adams’ Einstein is relaxed, charming, unworldly—he wears the same overcoat for 30 years while Herr Privy Council Director Professor Doctor Haber wears his titles like medals. It’s always easy to like Einstein, the wives and the assistant, but it takes some work to care about Haber.

And therein lies the major problem with this production. Haber is written with relative balance among his various conflicting qualities. A would-be humanitarian, he appears to love his wives, and struggles with the impossible contradictions of his patriotism. The play is animated by the tension between the sympathetic man he is or aspires to be, and the terrible things he does. But as performed by Ron Halder and directed by the Firehall’s Donna Spencer, Haber seems little more than bluster, the sum of his vocal mannerisms. Halder’s Haber never simply speaks when he can BARK. I was willing at first to attribute this to the character’s desperate embrace of his inner Prussian—the rigid body language, old-fashioned manners and clipped, precise speech are all part of the mask Haber doesn’t even know he’s wearing. But after awhile I could hear only the actor’s technical tricks, not the character’s anguish.

The result, for me, was a rich intellectual experience without much empathy.

Jerry Wasserman

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