On my way in to see Defying Gravity at The Southern, I noticed a small display on the lobby wall asking visitors to write down their memories of where they were for several defining tragedies in American history, including 9/11 and the JFK assassination. It’s a reasonable bit of interactivity for a play built around the Challenger explosion, as these are moments that, for lack of a less hackneyed term, bring us together as a nation.
No matter where or who you were at the time, so long as you were conscious when it happened, you have your own story to tell. Personally, I’m part of the generation who’ll never forget how quickly my day of grade school shifted from excitement for that nice astronaut teacher we’d been reading about in class for months to watching my own ill-equipped teachers try to explain the explosion the TV kept showing over and over. These events belong to all of us and they figure into everyone’s narrative.
That makes for an interesting dilemma when it comes to adapting these stories as fiction. It’s impossible to tell all of those stories, so whose do you choose to tell? Swandive Theatre’s Defying Gravity by Jane Anderson opts to go at it from multiple viewpoints, to varying degrees of success. The most recognizable of those angles is that of The Teacher, a character not explicitly identified as high school teacher turned astronaut Christa McAuliffe but clearly drawn therefrom. We also see the story through the eyes of the teacher’s young daughter, a member of the NASA ground crew, a bartender at the astronauts’ favorite tavern, and a retired couple piloting their motor home to the launch site. Oh, and an unstuck-in-time Claude Monet.
Seven separate personal narratives is a lot to tie in to one 90-minute play, and Defying Gravity takes a game run at it, letting the narrative unfold chronologically with vantage points alternating for maximum effect. Structurally, the play brings to mind William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, but rather than an innately personal narrative in which each teller is deeply involved, this play covers a near-universal story with tellers whose roles range from principal participants to sideline observers to metaphysical metaphors. It’s an ambitious approach that doesn’t always work, but hits hard when it does.
Adding to the sense of ambition is that Defying Gravity isn’t really a play about the Challenger disaster, or at least it’s not about only that. For as much as Challenger provides narrative skeleton and emotional impact, at its core this is a play about lack of communication and the casualties thereof. The teacher is so occupied by the rigors of training and the demands of sudden celebrity that her daughter feels she’s been spurned for a spaceship. The aging tourists have settled into a semi-comfortable rhythm of talking at each other without ever listening. The ground technician decries the bulwarks of bureaucracy that hinder the kind of cross-departmental communication that might have prevented the tragedy. And of course everybody tells their troubles to the bartender while seldom taking any of her advice to heart.
It’s a solid approach, and a clever way to simultaneously illustrate our collective experience of both a concrete tragedy - the Challenger explosion - and an abstract one - the breakdown of interpersonal communication. Some of these stories, however, simply carry more weight than others. While that’s probably part of the point, the Challenger disaster represents such a crushing loss of life, dreams and innocence that it can’t help but dwarf some of the more domestic crises depicted.
The retirees’ struggle to reconnect especially suffers here, despite engaging performances by Maggie Scanlan and David Coral as the show’s most obvious audience surrogates. As for Monet, he seems to be here to reflect the play’s impressionistic bent and to comment on the endurance and mutability of art in the midst of tumult. As energizing a presence as James Lekvin makes him, the magical realism of his presence never quite gels with the play’s more grounded goings-on.
But when Defying Gravity works, it works. Roneet Aliza Rahamim’s little girl recalling the terror of losing track of her mother in a supermarket is a keen instance of the playwright Jane Anderson’s command of specific but universal emotions. The teacher cajoling the bartender into confronting her fear of heights and getting nothing for her efforts but a frightened and slightly pissed-off bartender deftly captures humans’ tendency toward altruism without understanding. Bryan Grosso owns the technician’s “for want of a nail” soliloquy, building almost imperceptibly from self-pity to righteous indignation toward a broken system.
That all of these ambitious and well-realized pieces don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole is a bit of an irony. Defying Gravity has a lot to say about communication, and it says a lot of things well, but the play is at its weakest when its many moving parts just can’t quite connect. Everybody may have a stake in this story, but that doesn’t mean everybody’s story demands an equal share of the stage.