When the curtain parts, men and women dressed in clothing from the late-eighties walk around quietly, staring at Claude Monet’s paintings while a piano plays slowly in the background. Monet, played by senior Ed Rosini, begins a monologue as the viewers gather around a single painting. He talks about life and the final moments before death, and the viewers take their last glimpses of the painting before filing out. Monet finishes his speech and leaves. The stage goes black.
“Defying Gravity,” a play written in 1998 by Jane Anderson, is student theater group Pen, Paint and Pretzels’ (3Ps) major fall production. 3Ps puts on two major productions a year, as well as four minor productions, an orientation show and other independent projects. It also serves as an umbrella organization for the other performing groups on campus.
“Defying Gravity” loosely portrays the story of the 1986 Challenger disaster, though the play is centered more on the stories and evolution of its seven characters. On Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger, a NASA space shuttle orbiter, exploded seconds after take off at Cape Canaveral, Fla. All seven crew members lost their lives.
Emma Wold, a junior who is directing the play, said that she wanted to engage with members of the Tufts community from beyond the theater world with “Defying Gravity.”
“It’s no fun if we’re doing theater for theater people,” she said. “One of the reasons that I like this play is that, in its subject matter, it appeals to so many different kinds of people. If you’re [studying] physics and astronomy, there’s something in it for you. If you’re [interested in] history, there’s something in it for you [too].”
The seven characters in the play are often grouped in pairs, with the exception of Claude Monet: Elizabeth (senior Michele Herzog) and her mother, a teacher (senior Amanda Rose); Ed (senior Andrew Prensky), an older gentleman and his wife, Betty (first-year Abby Schmidt); C.B. (sophomore Kevin Lombard), a mechanic and his friend Donna (senior Julie Takla), a bartender.
“I think it focuses more on communicating the spirit of that history and the cultural experience that surrounds it than it does on the literal history itself,” Wold said of the play. “People our age probably won’t notice, but there are quite a few deviations from the factual history. Even the teacher, who is a real person [Christa McAuliffe], is never referred to by name, and her daughter is given a different name. The other four characters are fictional, and Claude Monet has no business being in a play about the Challenger.”
Wold explained why she believes the famous impressionist painter was included in the show.
“He’s kind of this founding figure of the Impressionist movement,” she said. “The play takes advantage of that philosophy quite a bit in that we are painting an ‘impression’ of this event and swapping perspectives as Monet did with, say, his series work, [which is] referenced in the play.”
The last several scenes of “Defying Gravity” are set in a fantasy world, where the motives for each of the three pairs, as well as Monet, become fully realized.
“In the last several scenes of the play, Monet sets up this world in which that is possible,” Wold said. “For Ed and Betty, that is a rediscovery of their marriage and their vibrance. For Elizabeth, it’s closure. For the teacher, it’s getting into space. For C.B. and Donna, it’s finding a common language for the two of them to explore their philosophical meanderings. And for Monet, it’s painting the earth from space.”
Rosini said that Wold emphasized to the “Defying Gravity” cast that the idea of marveling is central to the play.
“One of the things [‘Defying Gravity’ is] about is marveling, and marveling about the wonder that is space — or marveling at the wonder that is nature in front of you or the earth,” he said. “[It’s about] just taking moments to marvel at things that deserve to be marveled at. There’s so much in this show that is marvel-worthy: launching spaceships, seeing earth from space, having sex in space. It’s all of these moments that require this painstaking attention to detail, but also require really taking in [the script] and getting excited about it. In a show that’s driven by so many monologues, it’s important to keep them interesting, and I think the fact that every character is often marveling at something in the monologues…really makes it come to life.”
3Ps is performing “Defying Gravity” this weekend, Thursday through Saturday, at 8:00 pm in Balch Arena Theatre. Tickets are available from the box office in Aidekman. Tickets for Thursday’s performance are $5, while tickets for Friday and Saturday’s performances are $8.