Theater Review: ‘The Winning Side’

November 1, 2018 Updated: November 1, 2018

NEW YORK—“The Winning Side,” a thought-provoking new play by James Wallert discusses major aspects of the life of German scientist Wernher von Braun, particularly his contribution to the U.S. space race, and his earlier membership in the Nazi party.

What makes the play particularly compelling is its constant, underlying thread of ethics and morality. Does the end justify the means?

Wallert has hung much of his discussion around a fictional relationship between von Braun (Sullivan Jones) and an enticing chanteuse and actress Margot Moreau (Melissa Friedman). Moreau, a supporter of the Resistance, makes a meaningful foil for von Braun, who, in early scenes with her, displays a neutral stance politically, all the better to be able to continue their relationship.

The von Braun-Moreau scenes move from the early days of World War II, to its end. In fact, the play’s timeline moves alternately from the war to the moon landing, which sometimes proves a bit confusing. However, the play’s themes and content are sufficient to hold one’s interest.

Sullivan Jones as Wernher von Braun
Sullivan Jones as Wernher von Braun. (Carol Rosegg)

Along the way, von Braun is seen under the protection of U.S. Major Taggert (Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.), who realizes von Braun’s value to the U.S. space program and chooses to overlook what may be unsavory elements of von Braun’s past.

When von Braun unintentionally reveals to Moreau that he was, or is, a Nazi, he remarks that anyone living and trying to work in Germany during the war had to join the Nazi party. And he felt he must protect his goals at any cost.

A number of historical characters are briefly presented, including a funny scene featuring then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. He, Neil Armstrong, President John F. Kennedy, Walt Disney, and others, were all portrayed quite skillfully by actor Devin E. Haqq.

The playwright presents the period when collaborators were caught by the Resistance folks, which permits Moreau, found guilty of a relationship with a Nazi, to discuss her being paraded in the streets of Paris and publicly humiliated.

In the end, von Braun is brought to the United States, along with 1,500 other German scientists, to pursue the goals of technology and space exploration, culminating, of course, with the United States being the first nation to walk on the moon.

But, can one forget, not only was von Braun greatly responsible for these advances, but he also helped develop the ominous V-2 rocket, which wreaked death and destruction on our Allies during World War II.

Does one forget? Is it all right to forget? Can one separate one’s work or art from one’s political position? How does one define morality, and its importance in human endeavors? And are scientific advances worthy enough to obviate a stringent moral stance?

It’s clear that these are questions that permeate current and future, political and human decisions. Thus, “The Winning Side” asks questions that have far-reaching potency.

Epic Theater Ensemble’s presentation of “The Winning Side,” as directed by Ron Russell, performs a service to those who see theater as a form of intellectual stimulation and not just for its entertainment value.

An odd choice for casting is that the male actors are played by African-Americans. I see nothing in the text or content that would indicate that this is required. Perhaps it can be viewed that the German males represent The Other; although the black male Haqq, mentioned earlier, portrays other Caucasians.

Or, simply, it may represent a good way for African-American actors to portray roles not generally found in their often limited bailiwick.

Friedman gives a down-to-earth portrayal of the French actress.  Jones projects an attractive stage presence, although he lacks the commanding quality one would expect from a passionate, single-minded individual, who would accomplish his mission no matter the cost.

The unadorned sets by Chika Shimizu help create a high-tech ambience, and the occasional high-volume rocket blasts make for a tension worthy of a crucial world mission.

All in all, an engrossing theatrical presentation.

‘The Winning Side’
Epic Theater Ensemble
Acorn Theater
410 W. 42nd Street
Tickets: (222) 239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 2 hours (one intermission)
Closes: Nov. 4

Diana Barth writes for various theater publications, including New Millennium. For information, contact her at DiaBarth99@gmail.com

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