Defying Gravity, Cenacle Theatre Company, at Pilsen Theatre. It’s the “Where were you when…?” event of the post-Kennedy generation. Millions tuned in to watch the Challenger launch–which would send a schoolteacher and a group of astronauts to plant a telescope in space–only to witness the shuttle’s horrifying destruction. Jane Anderson’s play dramatizes the disaster’s impact on a group of bystanders: a NASA ground crew member, a bartender, a tourist couple, the schoolteacher’s daughter, and Claude Monet (mysteriously transported into the 1980s).
Anderson uses some powerful images to divine the meaning behind the catastrophe. To counterbalance her characters’ feelings of personal responsibility, she provides historical cases suggesting godly intervention–the Tower of Babel and the construction of medieval cathedrals–where people died violently while attempting to get closer to heaven. In a fantasy segment she speculates about what these characters might have experienced if the mission had been successful.
Anderson’s questions represent a potentially interesting dramatic premise. Sadly, though, the production falls terribly flat. There’s some momentum leading up to the launch, but the launch itself fizzles like a dead firecracker. Not only do we not see the explosion, we don’t even see all the characters’ reactions. Without that emotional connection it’s hard to care about the responses that follow. That’s too bad, because the actors–particularly Alexa Marsh as the daughter who blames herself and a cherry Life Saver for the disaster–deliver solid, sincere performances.