Defying Gravity and Transit of Venus: The Allure and Pitfalls of Exploration and Adventure on Two N.J. Stages
Also see Bob's review of The Colored Museum
-Christa McAuliffe, teacher killed in 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion
Defying Gravity, the imaginative Jane Anderson play which pays tribute to Christa McAuliffe and all those who push back boundaries in their quest for knowledge, is richly enhanced by an imaginative and adventuresome production at Theater Project at Union County College.
Initially, Claude Monet, carrying his easel, speaks to us. Monet, who is drawn as an eternal presence among man, tells us that the highest point from which he ever viewed the earth was the bell tower of the Rouen Cathedral. It is his greatest regret that he never painted Earth from high above ("Not just a bird's-eye view, but G-d's view."). Monet will interact with the more contemporary presences later in the play, and join McAuliffe and the rest of the Challenger crew on their doomed mission.
McAuliffe is identified in the program simply as The Teacher, and appears to be a model for all good school teachers who encourage their students to extend their boundaries in their quest for enlightenment. This teacher instructs her students about the invention of the flying buttress which allowed the building of higher cathedrals ("People always believed that if you defied gravity, you were that much closer to G-d."). At Christmas, her six-year-old daughter Elizabeth feels neglected because of her mother's dedication to teaching and NASA. And, of course, the child is devastated by the death of her mother. However, Defying Gravity gives us to understand that McAuliffe's venture into space is life-enhancing in providing a model for Elizabeth and all mankind.
In the Cape Canaveral area, we encounter two other couples whose lives will tangentially cross: Betty and Ed, a retired couple in their sixties who have sold their house and bought a Winnebago in which they are exploring the country; and Donna, a local bartender, and her boyfriend, CB, a NASA ground crew mechanic. It would seem that these couples represent the normal, earthbound folk whose lives are enriched by the deeds and presence of the deified likes of Monet and McAuliffe.
While Anderson's play is imaginative and not uninteresting, the response to its uplifting and inspirational content is likely to vary widely in direct proportion to the viewer's susceptibility to its inspirational but syrupy message. Perhaps not oddly, the more imaginative Defying Gravity becomes as Monet increasingly interacts with the others, the more pedantic it feels.
It is unlikely that any theatre devotee will fail to be impressed and riveted by the strikingly theatrical production which director Mark Spina has brought to the occasion. Rather than make use of an auditorium which is too large for its purposes, Theatre Project has long sat its audiences on bleachers set up against the rear stage wall and used the balance of the large stage as its performance space. For Defying Gravity, the stage has been built out with platforms placed over the front third of the auditorium. At the rear is a very large screen on which appear moving and still sharp digital projections, beginning with Monet's famed series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral and continuing with scenes including the Florida landscapes in which the play occurs, film of NASA activity and the Challenger, and culminating with rich and renderings of the stars, outer space and a sense of the divine. As McAuliffe teaches her students from a stage platform in the auditorium, the visible surrounding seats strongly suggest a grand classroom presided over by a divine teacher. Amazingly, there is nothing about this unusual, expanded set that looks make shift. Set designer Julia Hahn has created a beautiful, expansive celestial landscape which illuminates and enhances the play. The lovely lighting by Jacob Platt is flawless as is the sound design by Mike Magnifico. Given the production design, these are accomplishments especially worthy of notice.
Harriett Trangucci, the go-to actress for several New Jersey theatre companies, makes an ideal presence as the saintly Teacher. Gary Glor projects solid intelligence as Monet. Angela Della Ventura (Betty), Jeff Maschi (Ed), Daaimah Talley (Donna), Andre DeSandies (CB) and Jenelle Sosa (Elizabeth) deliver nicely detailed, naturalistic performances in their supporting roles.
Defying Gravity continues performances (Thursday Saturday 8 p.m. / Sunday 3 p.m.) through October 12, 2008) at the Theater Project at Union County College, 1033 Springfield Avenue, Cranford, NJ 07016; Box Office: 800-838-3006; General Information: 908-659-5189; online: www.TheTheaterProject.org; www.brownpapertickets.com.
Defying Gravity by Jane Anderson; directed by Mark Spina
A transit of Venus occurs when Venus passes directly between the Earth and the Sun, obscuring a small spot on the sun as it moves across its surface. It is a very rare phenomenon appearing in pairs eight years apart separated by alternating gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years.
Act one takes place in 1760. Three women in a country house in France bemoan the fact that 35-year-old Le Gentil is determined to travel off on a troop ship to India with his servant Demarais to observe a transit of Venus in order to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The women are his wealthy mother Mme. Sylvie, her servant Margot with whom Le Gentil has had an affair, and her 16-year-old daughter Celeste, who has just returned from schooling at a convent. Le Gentil has promised to marry Celeste. Mme. Sylvie and Margo spend most of their hours sewing. Celeste refuses to sew. Citing his devotion to a quest for knowledge, Le Gentil rejects Celeste's entreaties that he stay with her and goes off ("Dream of me while I'm gone.").
It is six years later (1766) as act two begins. Le Gentil and Demarais are finally returning home. Le Gentil has missed viewing the transit of Venus because he would not leave behind Demarais when the latter had fallen ill. Le Gentil has sent Celeste 112 letters while he was away. Le Gentil feels caged. He plans to travel to Manila in order to view the next transit of Venus which will be the last one for more than 100 years. Le Gentil dismisses the objections of Celeste. "How can anyone understand odyssey when all they know is needlework?," he fumes. Celeste, who has made the transition from child to adult, actually devotes her time to reading and gardening. Although Le Gentil still would marry Celeste, he flatly refuses her passionate request to take her with him to Manila. He insists that she wait for him this one last time.
As act three begins, it is 1771. Five more years have passed. Le Gentil, who has not written to anyone since 1869, returns home to find that the country house is in shambles. What furniture remains has been covered with cloth. Le Gentil had been presumed dead. Mme. Sylvie had become senile and moved in with a relative. The house had been closed, and its possessions sold in order to pay off debts. Celeste is pregnant. Demarais, who fathered her child, is dead. Celeste has been doing needlework to earn income, and now plans to go to "New France." Le Gentil has fulfilled his goal of seeing the transit of Venus and obtaining measurements of it. However, he is heartbroken. Although he had thought that he was meant to solve life's mysteries, Le Gentil realizes that he has lost all that truly mattered to him.
All of the performances in this production are competent. Julie Sihilling nicely portrays the transition of Celeste to womanhood. Jake Robards is straightforward and, until the final act, properly non-judgmental toward himself as the smug Le Gentil. Prentiss Benjamin (Margo), Linda Setzer (Mme. Sylvie) and Anthony Blaha (Demarais) round out the cast.
Director James Glossman seems off his game here. The production is slack and feels distant. More than competent performances, maybe much more, are needed to energize what appears to be a discursive and enervating play.
A line in the play so well captures an obvious but often ignored truth that I would like to share. Mme. Sylvie, speaking of her neglectful son, says, "We have a way of being dependent upon our children from the day that they are born."
Following its Canadian premiere in 1992, Transit of Venus was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1993. Although it has received any number of productions in Canada, the only previous American production that I can locate was at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1998.
Transit of Venus continues performances (Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Sunday 2 p.m./ Saturday 10/4 2 p.m.) through October 19, 2008 at the Bickford Theatre in the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, NJ 07960. Box Office; 973-971-3706; online: www.bickfordtheatre.org.
Transit of Venus by Maureen Hunter; directed by James Glossman
Photo: Warren Westura