Cold war nuclear anxiety lies at the root of some of the world’s best science fiction cinema. We’ve got the atomic bomb and its descendants to thank for such popular movies as Godzilla, Mothra and Them!, to name just a few films that explore our deep fear of apocalyptic radiation.
The Day the Earth Stood Still, a movie that opened in 1951, takes that anxiety in a different direction. In the show, a space ship lands on the national mall in Washington, DC, disgorging a single passenger – a humanoid creature named Klaatu.
Klaatu has come as an emissary from a more advanced culture to warn the Earth and its inhabitants of the dangers of nuclear annihilation. But instead of listening, our first reaction is to attack him. Klaatu is shot and wounded by a nervous soldier as he reaches for a gift to present to the President of the United States.
From there, passing himself off as a human named John Carpenter, he struggles vainly to be heard by humankind. He’s finally killed, but then miraculously reappears to a woman he met on Earth, Helen Benson.
The movie, with its score by Bernard Herrmann, remains today on many lists of the top sci-fi movies of all time. Three years after it came out, The Day the Earth Stood Still was made into an hour-long radio play that was aired by Lux Radio Theater.
It is this version of the story that is being presented this weekend by Eugene’s Radio Redux, the small theater company that specializes in recreating classic radio plays in front of a live audience. The conceit is simple: The Radio Redux actors play radio actors who are producing the live show in 1951 in a studio, with Foley sound effects and period costumes.
Steve Wehmeier, who played the donut shop owner in Very Little Theatre’s recent Superior Donuts, plays Klaatu with a gentle world-weary energy. A perfectly nerdish space alien, he can’t quite grasp the foibles of humans, thinking that a mathematical proof is all that’s required to set them on the right track.
In both the movie and the radio play, Klaatu is clearly a stand-in for Jesus Christ: That name, Carpenter. Those initials, J.C. The fact that he comes down from the heavens to preach peace and is murdered, only to rise again. Wehmeier handles this perfectly, without ever overplaying the parallels.
Rebecca Nachison plays Helen Benson, the widow who almost falls in love with Klaatu as she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her boyfriend, Tom Stevens (Dan Pegoda), who betrays him to the military.
Achilles Massahos plays Professor Barnhardt, with whom Klaatu tries to communicate by means of math.
And Bill Barrett and Bary Shaw, between them, voice some 35 minor characters, a virtuoso performance that sometimes involves one actor creating a dialog between two voices.
Music is performed by Judy Sinott, Jennifer Sellers, Debi Noel and Jim Greenwood. The three women perform a number of 1950s hit songs before the show opens, and do slightly sardonic versions of soap commercials during the show.
And, for a perfectly authentic sci-fi sound, an actual theremin is used on stage – the first time I’ve ever seen one played.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is good, brisk, fun entertainment. It gets one more performance at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 21, in the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater. Get tickets at RadioReduxUSA.com.