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Atomic Fallout 

As dense and charged with energy as a sample of plutonium, Actor's Express' The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer goes inside the head of the father of the atomic bomb. As the director of the Manhattan Project during World War II, Oppenheimer (John Ammerman) shepherded the first nuclear weapon from New Mexico to Hiroshima.

The title riffs on T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," but playwright Carson Kreitzer has more on her mind than literary allusion. Dizzyingly complex, the play views Oppenheimer's life through a kind of psychological kaleidoscope that moves back and forth in time, but focuses on the A-bomb project and the McCarthy-era investigations of the scientist after the war.

The history lessons alone would be ample material for a play, but Love Song unfolds as a dialogue between Oppenheimer and a haunting figment of his imagination: Lilith, the first woman (predating Eve, according to Hebrew mythology) whom Tess Malis Kincaid plays in blackface and black tights, like a walking shadow. Both sexual temptress and angel of death, Lilith tauntingly points out the ironies of "Oppy's" life, like how, during an anti-Semitic Holocaust in Europe, the Jewish physicist engineers a radioactive Holocaust for Japan. Stalking the action from raised platforms that frequently place her behind the audience, Kincaid acts with such intensity that she makes a potentially unplayable role weirdly credible.

Such heady material calls for a steadying, grounded actor for Oppenheimer to give the audience something to identify with. But Ammerman never anchors the production, instead giving a performance that's so mannered, so full of hissing insinuations that Oppenheimer seems more like an Elizabethan villain than an impassioned scientist. Directed by Jasson Minadakis, the production feels too removed from reality to truly move us, despite its poetic, thought-provoking words and images.

We seize on the rare realistic touches with desperate gratitude, particularly Kathleen Wattis' wittily jaded portrayal of Oppenheimer's frustrated wife. But for the most part, Love Song delves so deeply into the moral and historic implications of nuclear weapons that it loses the human touch along the way.

Curt.Holman@creativeloafing.com plays through May 7 at Actor's Express, 887 W. Marietta St. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 5 p.m. $21.50-$26.75. 404-607-7469. www.actorsexpress.com.

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