A teaching moment – Defying Gravity shoots for poetry, falls to earth in DramaDogs latest

DramaDogs only produce one play a year — recently, anyway — and have such short lives in the theater (only three performances), that many in town might not be aware of their long existence. E. Bonnie Lewis, co-director with husband Ken Gilbert, stars elsewhere in other company’s plays, but a DramaDogs show is her fullest expression of her art and DD’s techniques. Those techniques were out on full display in their production of “Defying Gravity,” Jane Anderson’s 1997 play about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Or at least that’s the springboard for a play that means to tie together our dreams of flight with concepts of faith and art. Ms. Anderson’s play is a lightly comic collage of disparate parts that intersect at humdrum moments. There’s a Christa McAuliffe stand-in, just called the “Teacher” in the play (Michelle A. Osborne) and her child (Natascha Skerczak) who narrates the play as an adult, but plays a five-year-old in the scenes with her mother. There’s a retired couple, Ed and Betty, played by Juan Rodriguez and Meredith McMinn, who are touring the country in a Winnebago and head to the Kennedy Space Center to see the launch. There’s a NASA engineer C.B. (Joe Andrieu) who spends his after hours at a local bar, flirting with the bartender Donna (Erica S. Connell), and after the Challenger explosion, drowning his sorrows and blaming himself. And there’s Claude Monet (Ken Gilbert), the Impressionist painter who died in 1926.

Say who and what now? This intrusion by the living ghost of Monet is what takes Ms. Anderson’s play into something more than a history piece with comic relief. But in the end, it didn’t really work. More on that in a moment.

DramaDogs productions are a bit like a reverse Impressionist painting. Up close, Monet’s lilies look like a scramble of colors and abstract shapes; step backwards and the painting looks lifelike. “Defying Gravity” works as a thesis, but the play itself and the production of it falls apart upon close inspection.

There are moments where everybody seems to be doing their own thing in terms of performance; yet at the same time nobody seems to have a fully formed character. When C.B. and Donna talk together we can’t tell whether they’re friends, lovers, enemies, or just conducting a commercial transaction. When Donna is mad at a drunk C.B., she’s neither that angry and he’s neither that drunk. (However, when Mr. Andrieu gets a monologue, or Ms. Connell performs her own solo piece, they rise to the occasion.)

Similar problems dog the retired couple, the result of a last-minute casting change. Ms. McMinn goes for broke to wrest some comic points from her busy-body character, but Juan Rodriguez is in his 20s playing 60 and is terribly mismatched. Ed and Betty should be the comic relief of the play, ordinary plebeians in gaping disbelief at the wonders of science and nature, but there’s never even a sense that they talk to each other.

That leaves it to Ms. Osbourne to carry the weight of the drama — playing the teacher who went into space and never returned. There is tragedy here and Ms. Anderson tries to transcend it with hope and spirit. But Ms. Osbourne has problems with these burdens. She was better in last year’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” playing an acting student wrapped up in self-involvement. We can’t tell whether she’s a high school teacher or working kindergarten from her delivery; it’s all performance with a capital P.

Every performer no doubt has put effort into the production, so a lot of the fault lies with the play itself — old reviews of its debut suggest that even at its best, “Defying Gravity” was a tightrope act above a pit of pretension. And it also comes back to Ms. Lewis’ direction, which doesn’t rein in the actors enough to create a whole, not to mention a need to underscore moments with music — played by Eric Valinsky. Each time Monet turns up to interact with the living characters, we get a musical cue straight out of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

To return to the opening point, DramaDogs only gives a small number of performances. Perhaps more would allow the actors to hammer down their characters more. Or maybe not. “Defying Gravity” should work out of the gate. On Saturday, it didn’t.

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