Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey hits a midseason peak with a stunning presentation of rarely produced Bertolt Brecht drama “Life of Galileo.” First produced in Zurich as “Leben des Galelei” in 1943, Brecht’s bioplay made its U.S. English-language debut four years later in thesp Charles Laughton’s adaptation. In John Willett’s freshly accessible translation, the episodic drama emerges as fluid theater, framed by director Joe Discher as a sprawling historical pageant.
Set in the early 17th century, the play spans three decades, from Galileo’s theft of a Dutch inventor’s telescope, which he claims as his own invention, to several sharply designed scenes that illustrate his intense study of the planets and stars, to the Inquisition that will silence his theories.
Brecht’s only misstep is Galileo’s pivotal recantation, which takes place offstage. Only the tolling of bells signals his reprieve.
Galileo ultimately leaves his audience with the simple but profound logic that “thinking is one of the chief pleasures of the human race.”
Sherman Howard offers a most persuasive performance as the persecuted astronomer and physicist at odds with public opinion. As a teacher in pursuit of intellectual freedom, he projects considerable warmth and wisdom as he demonstrates to an eager young student his theory of the revolving sphere that is the earth.
Thesp also mines the brittle humor of Willett’s palatable version. Howard frames his portrait with a gruff geniality and a robust sense of purpose. Bent with age, his final moments as the wise scientist battling failing eyesight offer a telling portrait of personal satisfaction and ultimate success.
There is a vivid dramatic unity among the many finely tuned perfs, including several players who effectively double and triple in roles.
The colorful and versatile cast includes Michael Stewart Allen as the passionately supportive Little Monk, Richard Bourg’s sympathetic cardinal who becomes an edgy pope, Derin Altay’s bossy and skeptical housekeeper and Edmond Genest as a steely inquisitor. One can nearly hear Robert Hock’s bones rattle and creak as the doddery old Cardinal.
Scenes are linked by narrator Jessica Ires Morris and strolling balladeer Jay Leibowitz, whose street songs define a sense of time and place.
James Wolk’s functional and flexible stage design of scaffolds and stairs leads from Galileo’s study to the streets and palaces of Venice and Rome. Many of the costumes boast an earthy realism, while the vestments and robes of clerics are elegant. A sharply defined lighting design softens much of the action with a weathered sense of time and place.