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Drinking to Forget the Bomb How Cusi Cram created her nuclear play "Radiance"

By ERIC GRODE

The pair of watering holes in Cusi Cram's new play Radiance will look familiar to fans of Labyrinth Theater Company.

These two bars, both inhabited by guilty men and women with chips on their shoulders, could easily house the players, wannabes, sad sacks, and sinners from the acclaimed plays by Stephen Adly Guirgis, the Labyrinth's co-artistic director and by far its best-known playwright.

Except that the shoulders in Radiance, which is now in previews at the Bank Street Theater, are draped in period fabrics. Cram has set the bulk of her play in a Los Angeles dive bar circa 1955, and the central section shifts back a decade earlier, to the hours before one of the bloodiest days in World War II. 

Cram, a Labyrinth company member, says the works that get full-fledged productions there are just the tip of a creative iceberg. "There's a certain perception of the plays the company produces as opposed to the plays it develops, which are wildly varied," she says. "There's a scope that people don't necessarily expect."

Radiance---which follows Air Force Captain Robert Lewis on the day he is to be interviewed on national television about co-piloting the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima ---was the beneficiary of this development process, both through Labyrinth and other off-Off-Broadway companies. Cram was originally approached in 2010 by Rising Phoenix Repertory, which sponsored a series of play readings that were both staged and set in a bar.

Her interest had been piqued by a radio story she had heard about Lewis's 1955 appearance on This Is Your Life, in which he met a Hiroshima survivor on live television. "They said Lewis was drunk at the filming," Cram says. "I suddenly had this image of him in a bar on Hollywood Boulevard in the middle of the afternoon." Still, a writing gig on the TV show The Big C prevented her from taking part in the Rising Phoenix series.

She began researching the period during her Big C downtime, but it wasn't until May 2012 that she actually began writing Radiance. A weeklong residency at playwright Theresa Rebeck's Vermont home gave Cram the time she needed to begin synthesizing all the World War II information she had been amassing for two years. The residency also gave her the confidence to confine the action to the two locations: "I was sort of terrified of staying in the bar, and Theresa kept me there." This was followed by a Labyrinth workshop, at which <i>Radiance</i> got on an extremely fast track, moving from first draft to full production in just six months.

While Radiance deals obliquely with romantic complications in both 1955 and 1945, Robert Lewis (played by Labyrinth company member Kohl Sudduth) remains the focus of the story. Cram says, "I really wanted to write about who these people were who dropped the bomb, and what the repercussions were for us as Americans.

"Lewis was the only one who ever publicly expressed any sort of remorse or grief. And I couldn't stop thinking about him."

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Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program