For many Americans, the death of NASA’s first “teacher in space,” Christa McAuliffe, in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was one of that decade’s defining moments of public grief. One of the many who were stunned by the tragic loss was Jane Anderson, a young writer on the television show The Facts of Life. “It shook me to my core,” Anderson recalled last week. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. McAuliffe was a wonderful mom and teacher who had literally won the lottery to have this chance. I felt a need to write about it.” Trained in stand-up comedy, Anderson first envisaged a one-woman show from the point of view of the dead woman’s daughter, but soon realized that the story was too big to work as anyone’s personal showcase. The result of that insight — and a lot of hard work — eventually became Defying Gravity, which premiered to rave reviews at New York City’s American Place Theatre with a distinguished cast including a then relatively unknown actor named Philip Seymour Hoffman.
This weekend, Defying Gravity comes to Center Stage Theater courtesy of DramaDogs, the innovative, movement-based theater company helmed by E. Bonnie Lewis and Ken Gilbert. For those who fear that the subject will be too depressing, take heart. Like its title, Defying Gravity strives to uplift rather than depress. It also features several fanciful elements, the most prominent of which is Claude Monet — yes, the painter. For Anderson, the age of space exploration represents an expression of human aspiration comparable to that which produced the great gothic cathedrals of Europe. She celebrates the radical breaks in perspective occasioned by Monet’s impressionism and the Space Station’s view of Earth from outer space as moments of great freedom. “I think it’s a holy perspective I was after,” she said. “Humans have always wanted to get high, and before flight, cathedrals were the only way we could do it.” Try it out yourself by climbing the stairs to Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo) this Friday and Saturday, October 4 and 5, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, October 6, at 2 p.m. Call (805) 963-0408 or visit dramadogs.org for info.