By Jonathan Williams
Times West Virginian
The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger shortly after launch in the Florida skies was an event that shook the nation to its core.
The 1986 disaster left a spectre over manned space flight in the nation for years and, for the families of those involved, a host of unresolved issues.
Resolving these issues is the subject of “Defying Gravity,” a play by Jane Anderson being presented by the Fairmont State University School of Fine Arts and Masquers Theater Group, with shows beginning at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“The play is about loss and recovering from loss,” said Dr. John O’Connor, director of the play and senior professor of theater at the college. “There’s a real hopeful message to it.”
The play is based on Elizabeth, the fictional daughter of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who was chosen, despite not being an astronaut, to join the Challenger crew and broadcast science lessons from space back to thousands of school children. At the time of the explosion, Elizabeth is 5 years old; the play recounts a 25-year-old Elizabeth’s memories and attempts to deal with her grief and move forward.
“It’s a really, really interesting play,” O’Connor said, “because its style is nonlinear and nonrealistic.”
For instance, he said, Elizabeth’s scenes take place in the past and present, with Fairmont State student Ann Marie Witkowski portraying the character at ages 5 and 25.
The play draws parallels between Elizabeth’s situation and that of Claude Monet, the popular French impressionist painter who himself lost a mother at a young age. Monet, played by student Stephen Phillips, features heavily in the play as a displaced temporal figure who helps guide Elizabeth through her journey.
“The reason he’s there, among other things,” O’Connor said, “is to communicate the idea of keeping a perspective and not letting our horizons limit us from going beyond what might be past there.”
Other characters include Ed and Betty, an elderly couple (played by Allen Ludwick and Katherine Thompson) who traveled to Cape Canaveral in their Winnebago to watch the launch, and C.B. and Donna (played by John Hall and Kiya Fitzgerald), the former of whom worked on the Challenger ground crew and blames himself for the accident.
McAuliffe is known in the play as The Teacher and portrayed by Lillian Gaylord.
O’Connor said he won’t give too much away, but he cited as his favorite scene a moment in which C.B. reads a letter he’s written to Elizabeth asking for her forgiveness.
“I staged that in such a way that is not called for by the playwright in the script,” he said, “but I wanted to do that because I think it’s a really powerful moment.”
With only seven characters in the play, it is not a large cast, but O’Connor said there are a lot of moving pieces.
“It takes a lot of work to coordinate everything,” he said, as the play has complicated lighting, projections and sound cues.
One area of interest is the score, which was composed specifically for this production by Dr. Dan Eichenbaum, assistant professor of music. O’Connor said the incidental music, which draws from French impressionism and contemporary minimalism, is “based primarily on certain thematic motifs that tie to several of the characters.”
Also of note are the projections, inspired by the works of Monet, created by Instructor of Art Nick LeJeune.
“It’s really a nice collaborative venture between all of the departments,” O’Connor said.
He also lauded Troy Snyder, associate professor of theater, for scene and lighting design and students Kurtis Dennison and Madison Whiting for costume and prop design, respectively.
O’Connor said he knew when he read the play four or five years ago that he needed to direct it someday.
“It spoke to me primarily because of the relationship between Elizabeth and her mother,” he said, “and the journey that Elizabeth travels in terms of reconciling her loss to the idea that this sacrifice ... has resulted in her ability to move forward and then, collectively, the community’s ability to move forward as well.”
He added that it speaks to modern tragedies, such as the Newtown shooting or the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, by addressing these larger issues.
It’s not all heavy themes though. He mentioned another favorite sequence, a dream scene in which Ed and Betty travel through space in the future.
“We really appreciate it when the community comes up here on the hill and sees our work,” O’Connor said.
He hopes people will turn out.
The play will be at Wallman Hall Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and again at 7:30 p.m. March 7-9. Tickets are $12 and entry is free for Fairmont State and Pierpont Community & Technical College students.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.fairmontstate.edu/tickets or by calling the box office at 304-367-4240. Parents are advised that strong language is used in the play.
Email Jonathan Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JWilliamsTWV.