Jane Anderson has written her play "Defying Gravity" about the 1986 death of schoolteacher astronaut Christa McAuliffe on the the space shuttle Challenger from several points of view. But the defining views are the extreme close up: My Mother the Astronaut as seen by the five year old daughter who was abandoned in so spectacular a fashion; and the long perspective: My Sister the Seer, where Mc Auliffe's passion to understand and communicate the scientific wonders of space is shown as analogous to the exploratory passion of an artist like Monet, who was obsessed with painting the effects of color and light. This results in a play at a considerable remove from comfortable naturalism, with characters drawn as individuals but blatantly chosen for their the allegorical significance. There is no conflict in it. That is, conflicts are revealed, but they are not cast in a form that pits one character against another to air and resolve them. In that sense, "Defying Gravity" is almost a parody of The Woman's Play, as contrasted with Oedipal clash of wills as defined by Aristotle. Part epic, part eulogy, "Defying Gravity" also defies gravitas-- the details are homely, the language a poetry that eschews pretension.
I first saw "Defying Gravity" at American Place in NYC a couple of years ago, and I was very moved by it. And I'm not the only one susceptible. In NYC I also attended the post show discussion of the American Place production, and listening to what the actors said about the play there, I was as deeply moved by their commitment to it as by the performance itself. The cast had been with the script through six long years of development, and yet they testified that they still stood in the wings each night, listening to the other actors' lines and weeping as Anderson's words wrung their hearts.
The Merrimack Rep's production has an excellent cast, and a beautifully imaginative physical design. It tells the story, raises the questions: Was it worth it? Whose fault was this loss? Was a civilian like the schoolteacher qualified to understand the risk, and to consent to take the risk? Did she realize that her becoming a celebrity, a public person, would be a terrible strain on her family? How far did that family understand and consent? Only one member of the Teacher's family appears on stage: Birgit Huppuch as daughter Elizabeth, at age five and as a young adult. Her childish incomprehension and need are skillfully drawn. But Teacher's husband, mother, and Elizabeth's older brother are sketched in with sufficient skill by the dialogue so that they, too, are living presences.
By all accounts, McAuliffe was a brilliant teacher, difficult as that is to imagine in an elementary school setting. Descriptions of the teacher/astronaut's space lessons reminded me of another intrepid explorer who works with the early grades, where young minds are still in their formative stage-- Margaret Edson, the author of "Wit". Anne-Marie Cusson, who plays Teacher, is a lovely presence physically, strongly reminiscent of the real Christa, and a powerfully emotional actress-- as she demonstrated last season as Josie in "A Moon for the Misbegotten" at Newton's New Repertory Theatre. But in the scenes where Teacher is sharing her ideas about space exploration, and comparing that communal effort to building the cathedrals, Cusson plays the sort of Teacher I could never stand when I was a kid. Cusson's Teacher is jokey, manipulative; she talks down to her invisible class and condescends to questioners. In Cusson's scenes with daughter Elizabeth, she is self absorbed, absent-minded, obtuse--- but a loving mother when at last Elizabeth succeeds in getting her full attention. These are reasonable, even brave, acting choices: but they add up to bad teacher, bad mother, a heroine in bad faith. By focusing on the all too human flaws at the expense of the unique and priceless virtues of this singular life, the production misses the almost mystical celebration of devoted aspiration that was the play I saw at American Place. Author Anderson says in her interview about "Defying Gravity" that she herself has "always been a big fan of the space program... the one thing in America that really worked". I've always been in the opposite camp: one of the cranky feet-on-the-ground skeptics, who regards NASA as a waste of resources. But when I am under the spell of her play I see what McAuliffe and Anderson and The Artist Formerly Known as Monet sees. An act of worship.
James Bodge and Sheila Ferrini play Everypeople Betty and Ed, a retired couple who have sold their house, bought a Winnebago, and are touring the country to see wonders for Ed to photograph. One of the wonders they see is the Challenger launch, and we see it from their perspective, too. Bodge and Ferrini are very very good. Their relationship feels rounded by time, and grounded in particulars. So convincing are they that when in a late scene they become space tourists making love in zero gravity at some time in the not distant future, that Future, the one in which rockets get better and better and never blow up or go off course, seems a possibility.
Monique Nicole McIntyre is Donna, who presides at the bar where the astronauts hang out. Donna has a fear of heights, an aversion to abstractions, and can't imagine why everybody around her wants to put people so far up in the air. She and Teacher have a charming scene where their opposite points of view collide. Very gently, not really a Conflict, but enough to add a shadow of doubt to each POV as they affect each other. Ron Heneghan is Donna's boyfriend, a NASA ground-crew member who feels an exaggerated personal responsibility for the accident that killed the teacher. He writes to her bereft daughter to express his sorrow, and that of the hundreds of other space workers whose standard is Zero Defects. Henegan's simple humanity is touching throughout, and his reading of the confessional letter made me weep.
Stephen Rowe is somehow stranded as Monet. I don't understand why, exactly. The artifice of the character is right up front. Clearly Monet has been snatched from death's kingdom and installed on this stage to express things that aren't in the purview of realistic characters. So why shouldn't Rowe have a fake beard and accent and cigar, and appear all in white except for the artful paint smears on his smock? No reason why not. All I can say is that some times Rowe was a comfortable embodiment, and sometimes he was just gimmicky cute.
I suppose that this is another way of saying that I don't think director
David Zoffoli has quite succeeded in integrating the montage of shifting scenes
and moods in a way that makes the white hot core of it visible. That core is the
terrible loss represented by less than two minutes of firey videotaped explosion,
run over and over in our minds, real and remembered. Scenic/Visual Imagery Designer
John Farrell has put this image on multiple TVs as well as on the central back
projection screen that carries the other affecting imagery. But more is not necessarily
better. On TV and in the movies science fiction has flooded our imaginations with
images of exploding rocket ships, and exploding civilizations, exploding worlds.
All bigger and noisier than this single soundless Challenger explosion. But some
of those who who saw that death "live" are inclined to take it personally. The
trick of "Defying Gravity" is to open that possibility to every person in the
audience, and situate it in the profound. Very tricky! But certainly well within
the range of the talent that is present on the Merrimack Repertory Stage. Good
now, the production falls somewhat short of perfection. Unfortunately, the Merrimack
cast doesn't have the six years the American Place cast took to get it right.
They have just one month to explore; and you, as audience, have three weeks of
that left to treat yourself to an elevating experience.