By very odd coincidence, the newest production by DramaDogs A Theater Company, Defying Gravity — a play about a space tragedy — happened to open the same night as the nationwide release of Gravity — a blockbuster film about a space tragedy. Add to this the fact that NASA’s website was recently grounded (that is, pulled down by political gravity), and you begin to wonder if fate is governed by the stars. Even if good theater is influenced by chance, it is only perfected by design, and codirectors E. Bonnie Lewis and Ken Gilbert draw their considerable talents to bear with this imaginative staging of Jane Anderson’s tightly crafted play.
First of all, this material fits nicely with DramaDogs’s commitment to the therapeutic value of theater. Anderson wrote Defying Gravity to personally cope with the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, which killed seven astronauts, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, shortly after takeoff. If there is any sense to be made of this event, Anderson seems to be saying that it is to be found in the larger context of the irrepressible human spirit and its frequently flawed attempts to reach the sky. Like Melanie Marnich’s play These Shining Lives (performed by UCSB’s Department of Theater and Dance last year), which follows the poisoning of women by radium in a watch factory, Defying Gravity confronts but at the same time softens a true-life tragedy with elements of the fantastic. The most obvious example is the presence of Claude Monet (played by Gilbert), whose visions of the Rouen Cathedral were his closest approach to flight.
Anderson’s penchant for metaphor was cleverly extended into set and prop design: a simple array of wooden step ladders. Lighting design by Theodore Michael Dolas included a backdrop projection of agitated clouds against a shock-blue sky — a brilliantly ambivalent image of either transcendence or the trailing scars of a rocket crash. Sound design featured actual clips of the Cape Canaveral countdown, while live musical accompaniment by keyboard player and composer Eric Valinsky gently enhanced emotional contours. The cast included Michelle A. Osborne, Natascha Skerczak, Meredith McMinn, Joe Andrieu, Erica Connell, and Juan Rodriguez.
Osborne and Skerczak are especially strong in their relationship as the ill-fated teacher and her daughter. But the play really achieves liftoff from Skerczak’s transparent demeanor as narrator and her spot-on ability to tap a conflicted 5-year-old as she is knocked from her orbit.