Seeking Transcendence, Finding Ourselves: A Review of SCDS’s ‘Defying Gravity’
I could start this review by saying that the Stern College Drama Society’s (SCDS) production of “Defying Gravity” really takes off, or that it was out of this world, or I could make a bad “Wicked” joke (despite the title, this play had nothing to do with the Broadway smash hit). Instead, I’d like to move past all that and get to what's really going on here. The SCDS production of Jane Anderson’s “Defying Gravity” is simply a delicately durable performance about the vastness of the universe, the tininess of humankind and the beauty we create despite that bifurcation.
The play runs in a free-structured style, oscillating between the 1986 Challenger mission and the present. Non-linear plays are often hard to follow, but that wasn’t an issue here (and anyway, time is relative in space).
Many of the characters initially seem to fit specific tropes, but upon closer inspection, reveal deeper complexities. For example, when we first meet the old traveling couple Betty (a tender performance from Shayna Hain) and Ed (Mikki Treitel — with incredible eyebrows), who actively seek out adventures, they seem to be just a quarreling couple going camping. But Betty’s naive innocence is more than a silly personality trait. It inspires us to contemplate the beauty that exists in the world — both natural and manmade. This is wonderfully complemented by Ed’s laid back, somewhat skeptical demeanor. Despite the fact that they provide levity to an otherwise heavy script, they still speak to a very human desire to connect to something greater.
We have the soft-spoken and eloquent Teacher (Chana Weiss, who just so happens to be teaching about churches and reliquaries), who has been chosen to be the civilian representative sent up on the Challenger space shuttle. Despite being a teacher, she herself has what to learn, especially about parenting. Her young daughter Elizabeth (the powerful Sarit Perl) attests to this with visceral, emotional expressions that are powerful in the way that only a child unadulterated by apathetic adult life or a Monet painting can be. While she may just seem like an ill-tempered child at first, Elizabeth really struggles to understand the pressure her mother is under just as much as Teacher fails to understand the pressure Elizabeth is under.
We have the gruff but deeply human NASA engineer C.B. (Eli Azizollahoff), who drinks a little more than he should, and his girlfriend, the motherly nurturer Donna (Tamar Guterson), who operates a bar near the NASA facilities. Throughout the play, she comforts the characters that need comforting (it's no coincidence that her name is a play on Madonna), and eventually she herself must face her own challenges with heights, which, while smaller in scale, are no less important.
And of course there’s the man who opens the play, the French Impressionist painter, Monet (a delightful Leah Schewitz), who anachronistically — but delightfully — joins us throughout the play, interacting with characters who lived decades after his death. The play seeks to draw a parallel between Monet’s artistic pursuits and NASA’s scientific pursuits. In this play, Monet’s sublimity goes beyond his paintings of cathedrals and lilies. He is everywhere he needs to be, simply trying to create beauty and see the world “from God’s view.”
Rocky Pincus and Sara Pool’s set is soothingly delicate. The walls and floor of the stage are painted in the harmonious, tranquil blacks and purples of outer space blended in Monet’s signature style, with fairy lights that shine like stars between scenes. The furniture hovers on the back wall as if floating in antigravity. The efficacious props and costumes are thoughtfully curated by Head of Props, Yael Nissel, and Head of Costumes, Gabriella Koegel, and their teams.
Director Reuven Russell artfully navigates the complexities of the play as he blurs the lines between past and present to emphasize the eternal truths that pervade the work. Jane Anderson’s meditative script weaves together a complex tapestry of themes and motifs: God, science, art, the cosmos and most importantly the interplay between them all. It is no coincidence that the Teacher’s projection of the stained glass rose window from Chartres Cathedral hovers above one scene like a planet or that she talks about how the invention of flying buttresses allowed Cathedrals to be built higher than ever before (look out for the many clever references and call-backs within the play). The play as a whole is very much an exercise in taking metaphors and really hashing them out to find the truths that lie within them.
The play challenges us to relate to these bigger themes, and ultimately to each other. The play is about reaching God and clinging to God’s world. Whether you’re a science person or an art person, it's well worth your time to head over to Schottenstein Theater to see this stellar (sorry, I had to) performance about “space, time and human emotion.”
Photo Caption: Many of the characters initially seem to fit specific tropes, but upon closer inspection, reveal deeper complexities
Photo Credit: Stern College Drama Society