Even by modern theatre standards, Jane Anderson's Defying Gravity is unusual. Loosely based on the Challenger space shuttle disaster, which made a posthumous hero out of Christa McAuliffe, the characters include Impressionist painter Claude Monet. The action ranges over a number of locations including a schoolroom, a supermarket, Kennedy Space Center, a highway, and the cathedral at Rouens.
With its numerous locations, shifts of tone, elements of fantasy, and delicate structure, Defying Gravity is a play that needs special handling. Fortunately, it gets that in the current Off Broadway production running at the American Place Theatre. Jeff Cowie's setting, which represents a Florida beach, is a suitable canvas for the play's many scene shifts; in addition, his constant use of projections helps the play's cinematic flow. Further help comes from Michael Lincoln's lighting design, which sustains the play's magical mood.
The key to Defying Gravity lies in Lincoln's assertion that "we tried to blend lighting and projections." In fact, there are moments when it is hard to tell the difference. A projection of a house, the LD says, is made of "seven units focused together;" the shapes made by the beams, when assembled, form a house-like structure. "The main block of the house is four ETC Source Fours; the roof is two more, and the chimney is another one."
Virtually every scene in Defying Gravity requires a strongly different look. A scene in which an elderly couple bicker while driving at night is lit by two side specials, with a little frontlight added to sharpen the actors' visibility. A sequence in which a little girl is lost in a supermarket is made sinister by the use of MR-16s buried in the rim of the stage. For a circus sequence, Lincoln drops a canopy of red- and orange-dipped bulbs over the stage, and adds giant yellow star patterns to the floor. In perhaps the most difficult sequence, Monet appears, floating in space, moving across the stage. The effect is created by two tightly focused units on each side of the stage. The light plot for Defying Gravity consists entirely of ETC Source Fours, controlled by an ETC Obsession console.
This is Lincoln's 17th production with director Michael Wilson. "Michael is a very visual director. And this team, we've all worked together a lot. [The others include costume designer David C. Woolard and sound designer John Gromada.] We talked about the show in two multiple-hour meetings. Of course, a lot of that went out the window when we got into reality, but it served as a foundation. We knew the outline of what Michael was thinking about." Defying Gravity continues at the American Place.