The magic of live theater under the stars returns to Downey with an eight-night run of the Broadway play “Defying Gravity” at the outdoor amphitheater of the Columbia Memorial Space Center. Performances are scheduled over three weekends, from April 28 through May 14.
This sensitive and inspiring drama about the tragic outcome of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle mission is presented as part of the Space Center’s City of STEM Science Festival, promoting student interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
While the subject of the play is the shuttle explosion after liftoff and the loss of the crew, the message is an affirmation of human courage and the quest for knowledge. Playwright Jane Anderson is an Emmy-winning writer whose themes of exploration, sacrifice, and risk remain relevant as modern society contemplates commercial space travel and sending people to Mars.
The 1986 disaster was a pivotal chapter in U.S. aerospace history. The Challenger mission had sparked renewed interest by the public in space travel because it carried the first civilian crew member, teacher and mother Christa McAuliffe. Schools had organized special science lessons and thousands of students were watching on live TV.
The Downey venue has special relevance for this California production. The Space Center occupies land that was once the site of the former North American/Rockwell plant which played a major role in the development of both the Apollo space program and the space shuttle.
Director Lana Wahlquist, who teaches theater at Cerritos College, recalls being captivated by the Space Center as a possible theater venue when she first visited.
“I knew I wanted to do a play there as soon as I saw the area out back,“ she explains. “It’s a beautiful, small theater.” She and her husband Andrew, who is serving as producer, began a search for appropriate plays and found Anderson’s “Defying Gravity.”
“From the moment we read it,” she said, “we thought this is it, we’ve got to do this play about the Challenger.”
With an extremely creative set design and multi-media features, the play was first presented three years ago in Downey to sold-out crowds, with playwright Anderson attending for a special Q&A session on the closing night.
Like many adults their age, the Wahlquists both have similar childhood memories of the day of the disaster.
Andrew, who grew up near the Rockwell aerospace plant and was only eight years old at the time, shares, “I don’t recall if I saw it live, but I was aware of it right away. I have the image in my mind of the smoke trail burned on TV.”
“I remember it as being very tragic and momentous,” says Lana, who was seven at the time. “I heard everyone talking about it.”
After receiving an invitation to make the play part of the STEM Science Festival, Wahlquist said, “I agreed to it pretty quickly, and it turned out the rest of the cast felt like I did. The show was really special when we first did it, so the opportunity to do it again and reach more of the community is something we’d hoped for.” He said all but one of the cast will be returning for this repeat presentation.
Gerald Blackburn, retired Rockwell engineer and former president of the Aerospace Legacy Foundation, reports that a post-performance Q&A session is also planned for opening and closing nights.
Blackburn’s memories of the tragic day are from the personal perspective of his intimate connection with the space program.
“I was at my office in Downey on my way to a meeting,” he recalls. “I stopped by a TV monitor showing the countdown and watched with several other engineers. We knew immediately that the failure was catastrophic and we had lost the crew. I continued to the meeting and spent the next two years making sure it didn’t happen again.”
“Defying Gravity” is a powerful play because of its subject matter, but producer Wahlquist hopes that people who attend the show will also take away “a feeling of spending an evening in a circle of friends.”
Wahlquist sees theater as “a shared cultural language.” Even though there is no longer an aerospace plant in Downey, “theater is a way to tell these stories to the next generation, trying to capture for them, and for us, what it felt like on the day the Challenger exploded.”
Downey resident Alicia Edquist, who saw the play twice in 2014, shares Wahlquist’s view and says she will be bringing her eight-year-old daughter to a performance this time.
Anderson’s characters give voice to the hope and dreams guiding mankind’s urge to explore. Kerry Wieder returns to play the Teacher, who is modeled after civilian crew member McAuliffe. The daughter Elizabeth (Bianca Meiloaica) is at first frustrated with having to share her mother for astronaut training.
An elderly tourist couple (Daniel Houston-Davila, Peggy Painton) are astronaut fans who drive out to watch the launch live. A NASA engineer (Zach Johnson-Dunlop) blames himself for the explosion, while local bartender Donna (Jaime Soria) tries to keep herself together.
Forrest Hartl will play the artist Monet, a character who muses about art and religion and offers a historical and philosophical perspective on man’s desire to see the Earth from on high.
The production company is committed to keeping tickets affordable says Wahlquist - $20 general seating, and $15 for students and members of the Space Center.
To purchase tickets, go to ColumbiaSpaceScience.org or call (562) 231-1200. The Columbia Memorial Space Center is at 12300 Columbia Way, Downey, CA 90241.
For more questions, go to DowneyArts.org.