Written by Jane Anderson, the play weaves facts of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster with fanciful projections about its aftermath. What people remember most about that tragedy, in addition to the immediacy of watching it in real time, is that teacher and civilian Christa McAuliffe was on board the spacecraft, and that she and six astronauts perished in the explosion.
As with all their work, directors Lewis and Gilbert have a knack for the deeply human, vulnerable and personal. Here, we see the varied stories of people connected with the tragedy in different ways, and from different distances.
In the role of painter Claude Monet, Gilbert has a light but sure touch with this magical, omniscient figure. From cathedrals to space exploration, his presence provides commentary on humankind’s continuing desire to go higher, and on the connection between art and science.
Michelle A. Osborne as the McAuliffe character, Teacher, and Natascha Skerczak as her young daughter have a wonderful familial chemistry, with Skerczak uncannily able to convey childlike ways and Osborne skillfully portraying her mother as a loving, brave and flawed human being who is facing the largest adventure of her life.
Joe Andrieu is solid as one of the NASA ground crew responsible for getting the shuttle off the ground safely, holding himself perhaps too responsible after the disaster. Erica S. Connell does a fine job as Donna, the pragmatic bartender at the astronauts' regular watering hole, who has her own personal connection to those affected by the tragedy and a fear of heights herself.
Meredith McMinn and Juan Rodriguez provide an interesting perspective as a couple retired and traveling the United States who decide to stop in Florida to see the space shuttle launch. These characters have a surprisingly positive outcome after the experience, and the actors illustrate the shift in their relationship quite well. The fact that they stepped into the roles a mere two weeks before brings a note of heroism to their performances.
Musical direction and live keyboards onstage provided by first-time DramaDog Eric Valinsky. With an extensive background in music for dance, he enhances the subtle physicality of the actors in the production.
Simple but effective sets utilizing stepladders and gorgeous backdrops of sky are provided by Theodore Michael Dolas.
While some may shy away from the subject matter, believing it to be depressing, rest assured that this is a truly uplifting experience. While we cannot avoid gravity’s pull on us in the physical sense, this production breaks free of heaviness or solemnity of spirit and soars high on wings of hope.
Remaining performances of Defying Gravity are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Center Stage Theater at Paseo Nuevo in downtown Santa Barbara.
Click her to purchase tickets online, or call 805.963.0408. Sunday’s performance is “pay what you can,” with a suggested minimum of $5.
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.