Mission Accomplished

In Spite Of A Few Problems Getting Off The Ground, Invisible Theatre's 'Defying Gravity' Delivers A Grand View.

IN MY LIFETIME, which began in 1970, I recall few instances in which the opportunity to "feel something as a nation" presented itself. We don't do much of that anymore. To be devastated by news, you must first be surprised by it; and I'd been informed that Americans had ceased being surprised by anything in the news around 1973. We take pride in that, our unflappability in the face of national crisis and scandal.

But the space shuttle Challenger was different, if only for a moment. On the morning of January 28, 1986, we were surprised. As a nation. And we were devastated.

We had followed with interest and growing affection the selection and training of one Christa McAuliffe, a high-school teacher. Still youngish, pretty, brave and strong, she was an American icon and a media darling -- the first civilian and one of but a few women to journey into space. "I watched the space age being born (with the Apollo landing)," she said on her application, chosen from among 11,000 others. "I want to participate."

She was both ordinary and extraordinary; she was amazed but not confused by her celebrity, and in her gratitude she reached through the television cameras to take each of us along with her, as far as we wanted to go.

Seventy-three seconds into that perfect take-off, billions of people saw an explosion they weren't supposed to see: a bright flash of yellow followed by billowing clouds, pure white fingers of vapor snaking back down to earth rather than up toward the stratosphere.

We waited for the authority of a voice in a microphone to tell us something had gone wrong. We waited, but we knew. We knew all seven astronauts -- men and women we loved all the more ardently for having been their distant admirers -- had vanished, quite literally, into thin air.

Our loss that morning was two-fold. Not only had we lost those humans, but in the aftermath we lost NASA, which was no longer an infallible knight in shining white armor, turning our darkest fears of the unknown into miracles of light and perspective. Instead of the triumphant voices of JFK and Neil Armstrong, we now faced a bevy of engineers arguing about O-rings. We had taken space travel -- or at least the mechanics of it -- for granted, and our absolute faith turned into the unanswered question, "How could this happen?"

It was a defining moment of the '80s and of NASA history; and when it happened, New York stage and screenwriter Jane Anderson recalls, she was doing laundry.

Perhaps it was because everything about that moment was so literal, so devoid of imagination, really, that Anderson chose to pen Defying Gravity in the way that she did. Ever the optimist in her storytelling (with films like How to Make An American Quilt and It Could Happen to You), she invented a tale, inspired by Challenger but not strictly about it, in which "everyone got what they wanted."

This 125-minute work, presented without an intermission by the Invisible Theatre Company, is a series of vignettes, monologues, mostly, in the fictional lives of a teacher, her young daughter, a retired couple, a NASA ground crew member, and a Cape Canaveral bartender. Oh, yes, and Claude Monet. We can't forget Monet, who hovers in the wings sketching and cleaning his brushes, preparing to repaint the canvas of our experience.

Anderson gets right to the point in her opening scene, in which Monet (James Blair) gives a short lesson on perspective. The black-and-silver stage, with a 6-by-8 foot projection screen in a gilded wooden frame as its focal point, is transformed into an art gallery where Monet is telling us about a woman, searching nose-to-canvas to see his Rouen cathedral amidst so many impressionist brush strokes. (The changing images of the Rouen, circa 1894, are projected onto the screen at sunrise, in full light and twilight). "Perhaps if you step back, madame, you might see better," is the punchline he delivers.

Monet's connection to this adventure is his vision of a world without horizons; but the motif of the cathedral is also a constant, a metaphor linking the past with the future as Teacher (Kathryn Kellner) lectures to her class about man's eternal desire to defy gravity, from 13th century buildings that seemed to reach heaven to the latest NASA engineering.

There is much to admire and uplift in Anderson's play, but there's a degree of overkill that distracts from its sincerity. Anderson's overwroght lines transfer into Kellner's frozen smile, Emily Grogan's wailing and Barbea Williams' giggling, to the detriment of their characters. Having chosen each detail so carefully, she fails to pare them down to their essentials.

Consequently, scenes which aim for the heartstrings bog down in melodrama, as when young Elizabeth (Grogan), fearful and resentful of her mother's imminent departure, wails in a supermarket about plastic green scorpions she hates, and red cherry Lifesavers with lint. Despite their sincerity, the lines sound cloying rather than quintessential. Shorter scenes or a more understated delivery would tighten the emotional grip this talented cast ardently attempts.

It isn't IT's best work, but it isn't half bad. And Gravity returns some long-absent faces to the IT stage (in Grogan's case, for the last time before the young actress moves to England). Grogan is mostly a skilled narrator, more often than not slipping deftly into her dual role as uncomprehending youngster with furrowed brows and crisp retorts. Williams, too, is engaging as the sassy bartender, terrified of heights, who fills the role of prophetic skeptic.

Defying Gravity is rarely subtle in approach, with its outspoken characters, simple messages and a soundtrack that makes the theater rumble when mission control says "T minus 26 minutes and counting." But Blair's scenes in "zero-gravity," where with small movements he achieves, however briefly, the illusion of floating in the cabin of his spaceship, are a little bit of magic.

Kellner alone seems never to relax into her role, facing each scene with courage rather than conviction.

Stealing the show are Betty and Ed (Bobby Joyce Smith and Tom Turner), a retired couple who've sold their home and hit the road in a Winnebago. They've argued their way from California to Florida, and their scenes sparkle with comical dialogue and naturalistic acting. They're a kick from start to finish. If you don't laugh during the slide show of their stay in Loew's La Luna Lodge, in the year 2006, you may be approaching the next century way too seriously.

And that's the thing to keep in mind: Defying Gravity isn't for literalists. The gravity of the title refers as much to our outlook on life as it does the laws of physics. We need to lighten up, Anderson and director Susan Classen are saying. Despite all we know, and how far we've traveled, without imagination we're lost.

Defying Gravity continues Wednesday through Sunday, through December 5, at the Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave. Show time is 7:30 p.m., and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $16 weekdays, $18 weekends. Call 882-9721 for reservations and information.
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