Defying Gravity, Jane Anderson's play about events surrounding the Challenger launch, transforms a national tragedy into inspirational theatre.
Anderson still remembers that she greeted the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, with a certain sunny self-satisfaction. She had rounded a critical professional bend, having effectively phased out the acting portion of her career and phased in the writing portion. "It was not much of a writing job," she recalls, "but it came with a parking space, and for some reason that was important to me."
In point of fact, she was rushing to that very space, wolfing down breakfast while she watched yet another shuttle launch on TV, when suddenly in a single, shattering split-second the world took a tragic turn, and the Challenger exploded right after taking off. "It was unthinkable that something like that could happen," she says. "The whole world was stunned in that horrible instant. Suddenly, we realized we weren't as safe as we thought we were.
"So many things, large and small, contributed to that tragedy that it was impossible to single out one cause. The press was always complaining when space shots were canceled, so it could be that officials felt pressured into the launch. Maybe it was a single mechanic whose negligence or oversight contributed to the outcome."
The more Anderson brooded over the events, the more they started coming together into a play. The result, Defying Gravity, just touched down at the American Place Theatre, directed by Michael Wilson and produced by Daryl Roth, who had also presented an earlier Anderson play, The Baby Dance.
Despite its historical reference, Anderson readily admits, "this is my most nonrealistic play yet." To give you an idea how "nonrealistic," the seven characters range from a Christa McAuliffe figure (Teacher, played by Candy Buckley) to the French impressionist painter Claude Monet (Jonathan Hadary) who has been brought to earth to paint space and who oversees the drama.
"The play is very magical," avers Roth, "in a sense, sort of an impressionist painting itself, the way all the brush strokes of the characters relate to the launch."
The other characters include a retired couple who come to witness the launch (Frank Raiter and Lois Smith), a member of the ground crew (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the proprietress of a restaurant-bar where the astronauts hang out (Sandra Daley) and a character suggested by McAuliffe's daughter (Lecy Goranson).
Anderson has a history of transforming real-life tragedy, finding in it different values and chords. A prime, prize-winning example: her HBO-movie, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom, which got her an Emmy and a Writer's Guild Award. Similarly, Defying Gravity defies its tragic base. "It's very uplifting in the way that everyone's lives are changed and touched by the event," says Roth. "A woman like Teacher in this play really did inspire a whole generation. She was an ordinary person, and she wanted to do something very extraordinary. I think that the message of Christa McAuliffe's life is not so much that she died in the Challenger but that she was an inspiration for people. Because she was a teacher, her whole thing was passing all this wonder on to students. That's what I hope people take away from this play."
-- By Harry Haun