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THEATER REVIEW

On keeping dreams aloft

'Defying Gravity,' a call to pursue aspirations despite setbacks such as the Challenger tragedy, receives a visually stunning revival.

November 24, 2003|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

For anyone old enough to remember it, the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger remains vividly entrenched in the mind. As with the JFK assassination and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we remember exactly what we were doing when we heard the news -- these are the moments in which dreams die.

The Challenger disaster was a body blow to our faith in the invincibility of science. The recent loss of Columbia, while no less tragic, lacks the same impact because, sadly, we can now classify and file away such incidents without having to wrestle with their deeper implications.

That task now falls to artists and philosophers, which is why Jane Anderson's first play, "Defying Gravity," has only gained in stature and importance since its 1991 debut. Written as a response to the Challenger tragedy, this highly stylized, unconventional drama is not so much a chronicle of historical events as a meditation on their significance.

In a visually stunning revival by Ventura's Rubicon Theatre Company, Anderson's play looks beyond the individual disappointments and failures surrounding the Challenger mission, and tries to resuscitate the spiritual yearning that fueled it. As Stephanie Zimbalist, riveting in the central role of the shuttle's schoolteacher-crew member, succinctly explains to her class: "People have always believed that if you defied gravity you were that much closer to God."

While real-life teacher Christa McAuliffe is the natural linchpin, Anderson never identifies her by name. Instead, to broaden the character's resonance, Zimbalist's Teacher remains an abstract, almost archetypal figure whose entire life is a source of inspiration. She's a near-deity to her daughter Elizabeth (beautifully portrayed at various ages by Precious Chong), who grapples with conflicted recollections in some of the play's most emotional scenes.

Connecting space travel to the timeless theme of exploration in all human endeavors, Anderson inserts Impressionist painter Claude Monet (engagingly realized by Harold Gould) into her nonlinear narrative. This somewhat arbitrary link is addressed not conceptually but visually: In one of Mark Ciglar's effective projected video sequences, we zoom in on a galaxy, then as we pull back the swirl of pixels forms Monet's painting of the cathedral of Rouen.

A first attempt by a natural talent still experimenting with her craft, Anderson's script sometimes falls short of its lofty ambitions. There are moments of preachiness, ham-fisted symbolism and a tendency to rely on the gravitas of the actual event rather than building it from within. The inclusion of child actors in the classroom scenes poses unsolved -- and perhaps unsolvable -- challenges, especially when they are asked to react to the shuttle explosion.

This production incorporates changes from successive evolutions of the piece, along with some additional reworking. But the best decision was to reunite the play's original creative team, including Zimbalist, who helped shape the Teacher role in early readings, and director Jenny Sullivan, who first staged it.

A superb cast fleshes out the abstract characters. Jeff Korber brings eloquent pathos to a guilt-racked member of NASA's ground crew. His barmaid girlfriend (Pamela Shaddock) is an earthy, pragmatic counterweight to the others' ethereal ideals. John Bennett Perry and Ann Walker amuse and delight as a retired couple who demonstrate that dreams are not the exclusive province of a gifted few.

The production achieves dramatic liftoff, however, with its dazzling sequences of midair choreography, rarely encountered in such an intimate venue. In one, Elizabeth moves past her mother's death on a circus trapeze; in another, the spirit of Zimbalist's Teacher describes miracles as she floats weightlessly above the audience -- not a symbol of wishful thinking, but a reminder to pursue our higher natures despite the setbacks we encounter.

*

'Defying Gravity'

Where: Laurel Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: Wednesdays, 7 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.

Ends: Dec. 21

Price: $25-$45

Contact: (805) 667-2900

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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