Aiming sky-high, Jane Anderson dares to ponder some of the imponderable questions raised by the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. In “Defying Gravity” the questions are both metaphysical — What lies behind man’s ageless desire to be freed from Earth? — and concrete — Was it human error that caused the tragedy? But the airiness of her ambitions and the play’s adventurous, dreamy style elude the grasp of the playwright’s essentially earthy gifts, and “Defying Gravity” spends more time orbiting its ideas than making contact.
The play’s impressionistic spirit is signaled at the opening, as Claude Monet, no less, played with subtle panache by Jonathan Hadary, shuffles onstage to recall a small contretemps with an old woman over his series of paintings of the Rouen cathedral. The woman can recognize the building only in Monet’s painting of it at dusk, because that’s when she goes to say her daily prayers there. The exchange resonates throughout the play: It’s people who give meaning to the achievements of art and science, not the other way around.
In short scenes played under Jeff Cowie’s striking blue proscenium, the lives of six characters more closely connected to a fictionalized space shuttle launch are economically etched: the civilian Teacher with a ticket to ride (Candy Buckley), based on Christa McAuliffe, who died in the 1986 Challenger tragedy; her young daughter, Elizabeth (Alicia Goranson); a mildly bickering retired couple, Betty and Ed (Lois Smith and Frank Raiter), who aim their wandering Winnebago south to attend the latest takeoff; ground crew member C.B. (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his favorite bartender and sometime girlfriend, Donna (Sandra Daley).
Anderson has a delicate ear for the different rhythms of her characters’ voices, and a first-rate cast brings them gracefully to life. Smith is particularly fine as the insistently inquisitive Betty, whose interest in the lives of everyone she meets subtly signals an emptiness in her own, but each member of the cast has a moment or two to shine. And Michael Wilson’s nimble direction gives the play an easy flow.
But the breadth of Anderson’s canvas — the three pairs of characters only glancingly intersect, and Monet joins the party at occasional intervals — means that none takes on great depth. Although the Teacher addresses most directly the play’s big questions — “If you’re defying gravity, you’re that much closer to God,” she says, describing the impulse behind cathedral-building and space travel alike — her scenes are almost all with her students or her daughter, situations from which we learn little other than that she’s a loving mother and enthusiastic teacher. There’s a People-magazine thinness to her depiction that never dissipates.
Anderson’s point may be that these are just regular folk whose lives are touched by — and in turn touch — history, but regular folk must be drawn with deeper feeling to be compelling figures in a play (particularly if you’re going to nominate them for sainthood, as Anderson implicitly does with the Teacher).
Indeed, the playwright’s great naturalistic gifts are ultimately at odds with the grand whimsy she’s attempting here: After the disaster, the play concludes with several increasingly fantastic scenes whose point — that man’s upwardly aspiring nature can’t be checked by a single tragedy — is not sufficiently illuminating to make us swallow the strangeness (Betty and Ed talking about their experience of having sex in outer space, to give an example). “Defying Gravity’s” style and substance in the end defy the considerable talents of its author.