One of the things I like about Claire Willett’s new play Dear Galileo, the Playwrights West show that’s been a breakout summer hit at CoHo Theatre (it closes Saturday night), is the way it unabashedly reclaims the territory of big ideas for the theater.
We’ve not been living with a theater of big ideas these past few years: the standard modus operandi is to burrow deep and small, homing in on ruptures, trying to dig the pinworm out of the cultural corpus; or to create a loose verbal structure for acting as performance art; or just to riff, comically or ironically, on the innate absurdity of the contemporary condition. The days of Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, those brash and impertinent knockings-on-the-door of the infinite, seem far behind us, or tucked away safely on high school stages, although that might be changing: Portland Center Stage, the city’s biggest theater company, kicks off its newest season soon not with its usual big-scale musical but with a revival of Our Town.
Willett isn’t an ironic writer, and she’s not too interested in the theater of small, at least in subject matter. Dear Galileo embraces the mysteries of the universe, as Galileo himself did, back in the 1600s, when he landed in hot water for pointing out that observable phenomena did not square with certain aspects of received religious belief. That didn’t lead him to question spirituality, only to suggest that certain points of didacticism probably needed to be rethought. It also, inevitably, opened the door to a more expansive and questioning view of cosmic possibility that demanded reexamining even the definition of such concepts as “God.” Where does a desert tribal deity fit in an expanding universe of dwarf stars and antimatter and curved infinities and Big Bangs?
“Mathematics is the language in which God has created the universe,” the production’s program quotes Galileo, and that’s the territory Willett claims as her own: the convergences and clashes of science and religion as each tries to understand the shape and reason (if there is one) of the infinite. Must the two necessarily be at odds? Or can a trick of definition, a recalibration of the idea of religion as a process rather than a tablet of restrictions and rules, bring the two quests for understanding into something closer to harmony? What Willett’s attempting to pull off is a bit like getting C.S. Lewis and Samuel Beckett to pack a few sandwiches and go fishing together, although when you think about it, it’s maybe not such a cockamamie idea: Lewis and Beckett are angling in the same stream, even if their catch seems radically different.
In director Stephanie Mulligan’s well-acted and attractively staged premiere production, the eternal questions are got at via three interlinking stories: those of Galileo himself and his devoted if restive daughter (Chris Porter and Kate Mura, who spar with loving exasperation); of New York artist Cassie Willows (Nena Salazar) and her estranged father, Jasper (Gary Powell, the passionate science prof you wish you’d had in college), a celebrated astrophysicist at the Vatican Observatory in the Arizona desert, along with Jasper’s brilliant and emotionally messed up assistant, Gabriel (Nathan Dunkin); and small-town Texas creationist author and TV talking head Robert Snow (Walter Petryk), whose view of religion is as tough and tiny and nigh-unbreakable as a macadamia nut, and his eternally questioning young daughter Haley (Agatha Day Olson), whose eager questions tossed out across the centuries to Galileo give the play its title. Fathers and daughters have as much to do with the play’s emotional and narrative journey as god-the-fathers and the place of mere humans in the universe.
Willett revels in big speeches loaded with big questions, and the Dear Galileo audiences’ eager response to them suggests the skill with which many are constructed, the actors’ deftness of delivery, and perhaps an emerging eagerness by theatergoers to engage with issues bigger than the kitchen sink.
For all its attractions the play is long and sometimes feels as if it’s trying to stuff too much in. I’d need to spend some serious time looking over the script to decide for sure, but it strikes me that two interweaving stories might work better than three, and that the tale of extreme fundamentalist Robert Snow and his daughter might be the odd one out. The stories of the Willows and the Galileis seem to play off each other well: the pioneering astronomer and the contemporary astrophysicist, each trying to balance science and faith, and each thinking in terms far more expansive than the ordinary men and women of their times.
Snow, who clings fervently to the Bishop Ussher timeline of the universe (the good bishop, in his brilliantly wrongheaded journey through the Old Testament’s thicket of begats, determined in 1650 that Creation took place at about 6 p.m. on October 22, 4004 B.C.), and who twists the scientific record to place humans and dinosaurs on the planet at the same time in an effort to align geological reality with an extreme literalist interpretation of scripture, is hard to take seriously as a thinker. He’s simply not a credible match for Galileo and Willows: intellectually speaking, he’s a relic, although men like him have outsized political, educational, and pop-cultural influence. The Snow segment of Dear Galileo could be a case of the Don Juan in Hell conundrum: a fascinating fragment that’s related but doesn’t quite fit in with the mother ship of Man and Superman. Should it be inserted into the play, or left out, or kept separate and run in repertory?
Let that be. It’s a larger question, ultimately for Willett and no one else to decide. In the meantime, audiences have been enthusiastic, and that’s no accident. Neither, Willett might respond, is the universe, although she’d likely add that that’s part of the big question, isn’t it?
Speaking of big ideas (or at least, big titles), Saturday afternoon is the final chance to catch The Theory of Everything, Prince Golmovilas’ expansive comedy about UFOs, Japan, and the Chapel of Love. Produced by Theatre Diaspora, an arm of Dmae Roberts’ MediaRites that produces theater featuring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it has its final of just two performances at 2 o’clock Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre. Tickets are just 10 bucks; info here.
And in case you’ve missed Third Rail Rep’s screenings of the National Theatre’s lauded film versions of live performances, or want to catch some of them again, Third Rail is giving an encore festival this weekend of favorites from the 2014-15 season. Showing Friday through Sunday at Imago Theatre, Third Rail’s new home base, will be Man and Superman, Treasure Island, Of Mice and Men, Skylight, A View from the Bridge, and John. Ticket and schedule information are here.