What do Claude Monet, doomed Challenger astronaut Christa McAuliffe and the anonymous builders of cathedrals have in common? In Jane Anderson's moving and poetic play Defying Gravity, they're all striving for transcendence, trying to break free from the constraints of the horizontal and vertical and get closer to God. The inaugural production of the (Mostly) Harmless Theatre, Defying Gravity, belies the group's freshman status; this is a remarkably mature and polished work from a company that has sprung full-blown onto the local theater scene.
Anderson uses the events leading up to and following the 1986 space-shuttle disaster, fictionalizing and fantasizing to fit her theme of human beings reaching beyond themselves. The through-line of the piece is emotional rather than plot-driven, and much of the tension and poignancy come from knowing what fate awaits the Teacher, the character based on McAuliffe and given full life by Wendy Bagger in a deeply touching performance. When she addresses her unseen class on art history, her enthusiasm and vitality are palpable. The teacher's daughter, Elizabeth (Michele Hand), is the center of the play, narrating the action from the future as she also participates in it. Hand handles the stylistic demands perfectly, playing a child in a convincing, noncloying manner while capturing the heartbreak of the adult still trying to come to terms with the loss of her mother.
The entire cast is strong as a variety of characters touched by the tragedy. Tijuana Ricks is Donna, the owner of the bar where the astronauts hang out; Jason Cannon is C.B., a NASA technician who takes on the guilt of the crash; Wm. Daniel File and Diane Peterson are Ed and Betty, two retirees traveling the country in a Winnebago and stopping to "see beautiful things." From his entrance at the top of the play as a dry Claude Monet, Andrew Richards sets the fantastic and poetic tone that director Robert Neblett deftly keeps afloat through the evening. Neblett's direction, like the play itself, is deceptively simple; the piece, which depends on metaphor and fragile moments between actors, could easily come crashing down but never does. There are a handful of times when Anderson's writing stretches metaphor to its limit, but Neblett and his cast overcome the flaws and give us a transcendent play about a transcendent subject.
Scenic designer Ben Badgett's set, Glenn Dunn's magical lighting, the slide backdrops by Tim Twelves and Neblett's own sound design all add to the haunting beauty of the production. Although the Challenger tragedy may sound like odd and sober subject matter, the play is ultimately uplifting, a celebration of man's desire for communion with something higher, as well as a eulogy for the lives lost. In a summer full of lighthearted theatrical offerings, there is room for an intelligent, sensitive, entertaining and humanistic play. (Mostly) Harmless should be welcomed with drums and horns and full houses. Stop and see this beautiful thing.