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In the Tony award-winning "Copenhagen," the fate of the world turns on the oedipal relationship between two atomic scientists.

World Turning 

In the Tony award-winning Copenhagen, the fate of the world turns on the oedipal relationship between two atomic scientists

There are debts the living owe the dead. A number of them involve documentation.

On a Kernersville school bus, a Native American girl solemnly holds a photograph picturing a man in a coffin. "Look," she says. "This is my father."

A mother videotapes her son, a member of the Almighty Latin Kings, as he dies in a Chicago emergency room.

They're stark records of violent lives and deaths. Director Deb Royals remembers both vividly: One she encountered one morning in the seventh grade, the other she saw while helping a professor document Chicago gang culture in the 1980s.

Their connection to the world of William Faulkner may seem remote. Yet they became touchstones in Royals' adaptation of Faulkner's That Evening Sun, whose Raleigh Ensemble Players production opens this week. A remembrance of a death foretold, the story chronicles an African-American washerwoman's increasingly desperate attempts to convince anyone around her that her ex-lover is going to kill her. But as a single black woman in turn-of-the-century Mississippi, her pleas have less importance than the Compson children's squabbles. Both are repeatedly, pointedly juxtaposed in Faulkner's dark tale.

Like the photograph and the video, the Faulkner short story is something of a memento mori in its own right, an unblinking portrait of death and complicity. "They're all records," Royals notes, "a way of documenting someone who was real; something horrible that actually happened.

"There's got to be a reason why Faulkner returned to this story after The Sound and the Fury," Royals says. "I think he was saying that this is exactly what caused the South to crumble from within, and why it should have. He focuses on it here."

The subtleties of the story conceal much that is monstrous. The cultivated disregard and the fundamental disconnect we see in children and adults meets any reasonable definition of psychopathic behavior. For all that, the language of racism and the nightmarish scenario in which an adult woman's deepest fears are written off rings true. It's a miniature of the American sickness, with an end to chill the warmest blood. We'll see how it translates to stage this weekend in Cary.

With due respect, Oscar Wilde was wrong. Those we trust are far from the only ones who can betray us, particularly in an age where government, technology and journalism all abet the gradual erosion of personal privacy. Nor is this, despite recent reports, anything remotely new. Big Brother's actually been around for millennia as the watchdog deity of several religious traditions, as one who sees--and therefore must judge--every human action, thought and emotion.

It was bad enough when God, and his carefully selected emissaries, knew one's impure thoughts. Then Mike Wallace wanted in on the action. After that, the deluge: Geraldo, Jerry, and others one would rather not be on a first name basis with. Then the e-mail administrator, the NSA and the Bureau of Homeland Security lined up for a piece of the pie.

So much for a room of one's own.

That's probably the most heartbreaking thing about Stop Kiss, Diana Son's compelling jump-cut analysis of a budding relationship and what an act of violence does to it, now showing at North Carolina State's University Theater.

As most fools know by now, one kiss does not a girlfriend make. But no sooner does Callie's cautious, awakening attraction to Sara find its first expression, in her first such experience with a woman, than both are plunged into the public spotlight. After a vicious attack, the police, the media and the world demand that Callie and Sara immediately define their relationship and their sexual orientation, well before the two have the chance to sort things out for themselves.

The intangibles of a relationship in gestation are immediately frozen in the public eye. Both are outed before they're entirely out to themselves. Callie is labeled Sara's girlfriend--with all the responsibilities and stigma that title implies. The pair must negotiate the consequences of having all privacy suddenly denied, and resist having their relationship defined for them. How, or if, they do gives the final sections of this work much of its drama.

Director Terri Janney's first-rate production features robust, believable characters. Tracey Phillips displays a vulnerability that is amusing and affecting as an infatuated Callie, a know-it-all New Yorker who doesn't know her own heart. As the stakes increase, her responses to the crises ring true. Collette Rutherford's solid work here as a no-nonsense Sara entirely fits the bill--but leaves questions about her dramatic bandwidth.

As Mrs. Winsley, Kate Isley's a fully developed character, not the one-note frump she could have been, but the men don't fare so well. Adrian P. Dunston as Callie's probable ex-boyfriend, Shane Waring as Detective Cole and Michael Winters as Sara's ex-boyfriend Peter all come off as variations on a lout--a criticism perhaps more of Son's script than of this production.

The world is too much with us; worse yet, it likes to force our hand. The resilience required to resist this is in some ways the hardest lesson in Stop Kiss. Definitely recommended.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen took the Tony last year for best play. But judging by some of the recent press, you'd have to have a degree in history or atomic theory to understand it.

Relax: Despite almost everything you've read, it really isn't rocket science, or nuclear physics, for that matter. When you get down to it, Copenhagen is just a father-son argument that got a little out of hand--and almost destroyed the world.

Werner Heisenberg was Niels Bohr's protégé in nuclear physics, but the two wound up on opposite sides of World War II. Heisenberg worked in Germany while the Third Reich came to power, while Bohr stayed in a Denmark threatened by German forces. Both were working on the problem of the atomic bomb.

One afternoon in 1941, Heisenberg traveled to Copenhagen for a conversation with his mentor. Apparently the fate of the world was decided as a result. But the two could never agree on what they actually communicated, and their accounts of the conversation changed over the years.

What makes Frayn's script this week's must-see? It's three sides of a secret. We get one character's point of view, and the conversation makes sense. Then another point of view comes in, and the story we thought we knew takes on a very different color. In this riveting three-person play (Niels Bohr's wife, Margrethe, also figures), it happens again and again.

In the process we learn that what Heisenberg and Bohr thought the other said to them becomes as crucial as the actual words each said. The two aren't always the same. When interpretation gets factored in, three sides of a secret suddenly become six, and then a lot more.

In such a delicate conversation, one incorrect inference, one dropped digit is more than enough to lose a world in. The conversation's no easier because the people having it are, in director Jennifer Gray's words, "a father and son figure gone wrong."

Just a family squabble, folks, with the fate of the world most definitely in the balance: one reason you shouldn't miss Copenhagen. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@indy week.com.

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