One chilly Christmas night on the eve of WWII, Jewish refugee Lise Meitner took a stroll with her nephew through a snowy Swedish forest. Their fateful walk concluded with her making the key calculations required to split uranium’s nucleus, eventually earning her the title “mother of the atom bomb.” Meitner’s contributions to the Manhattan Project were never honored with a Nobel Prize, even after nearly 50 nominations. But she opened countless other doors that had been closed to her by sexism and anti-Semitism, through her sheer diligence and persistence.
Now, British performance poet Jem Rolls has turned into a historical storyteller to finally give this remarkable scientist her due in a sobering, scholarly solo show. With zero props and minimal lighting, Rolls serves as his own special effect, punctuating his narration of Meitner’s rise and fall with dramatic body language and distinctive hand gestures that sometimes threaten to launch his lanky frame off the stage.
Meitner’s mantra that “life need not be easy, provided it isn’t empty” might equally apply to this challenging, fact-filled monologue. If you aren’t already educated in 20th-century European politics and nuclear physics, you may want to study the program before the show starts for some essential historical dramaturgy. Even then, the encyclopedic barrage of dates and names can easily become draining after an hour.
Rolls has done exhaustive research in his admirable effort to restore Meitner’s faded reputation, and many of the dramatic details he unearths are genuinely gasp-inducing. However, without the melodic rise-and-fall of his usual rhyming verse, audiences risk becoming numb to the nonstop intensity of his staccato delivery, which only falters during the final minutes. I was fully engaged by The Walk in the Snow’s subject matter, and with some more shaping this show could be superb, but in its present state it made me yearn for a pause button.