Except for a record player, Jayme McGhans Apollo 8, a world premiere of AD Players, uses all the bells and whistles that a state-of-the-art theater production could ask for: a giant upstage cyclorama for high def projections of the sky; a sound system screwed up to 11 to compete with a rock concert; wonderful lighting effects; the direction of the liquid stage.
What the piece does not possess is coherence.
It’s 1968, and the US space program hampered by the terrible disaster of Apollo 1 and by contemporary social disturbances and an unpopular war abroad needs a victory. It needs a feel-good moment.
The December 1968 space mission was epic – NASA’s first manned mission around the moon. Although it was a hasty decision to send men in “translunar-injection” (never underestimate the passionate language of astronaut speech), everyone in the space program feared losing to the Russians. We had to get there first, if nothing else, to honor President Kennedy’s memory and his speech to Congress in 1961, where he advocated “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” He specified, “before this decade is out.” Russia had already sent the first satellite into space and the first man in orbit around the Earth. In the terrible atmosphere of civil unrest, the Cold War and Vietnam, this was unacceptable. We had to beat the Russians.
McGhan’s narrative is epic and encompasses everything that happened during 1968. While the turbulent social protests, assassinations and Vietnam remain relevant today and shape our history, these significant events have little to do with our space war with Russia or the incredible efforts by the army of NASA mathematicians, doctors, technicians and scientists to bring Apollo 8 to life. The year 1968 defines an era, but not necessarily Apollo 8. This significant event has its own specific turbulent story, yet McGhan embroiders it with aliens and scenes as padded as a space suit.
These distractions eat up necessary time and precious stage space. We know exactly why they are here – to show how ordinary people were inspired by the American space program and how the race to the moon changed their lives for the better. This is up to a point noble, but when the primary narrative is filled with its own natural suspense, impending disaster, and the great wonder of space, these peripheral digressions get in the way. They pull down into the play when it has to soar and float without gravity.
The three jock astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders (played by Kevin Dean, Jake Speck, Nick Farco) seem no more important than the young fatherless Rocket (Sophie Lowe) and depressed mother Hattie (Christy Watkins in a very nuanced performance) ; Rabbi Adler and his underperforming son Hal (Rick Hodgin and Jake Speck), or the Cuban math wizard Alma and the beloved man Roberto (Ciara Shabree Anderson and Philip Kershaw). All grades are written at the same level, given the same weight. If everyone is important, then is there anyone? The doctor loses power and focus. Our heroes fall back.
LBJ (stinging James Belcher) trusts Ginni Whittington, the first black secretary of state, who is described in detail by McGhan and defined by Anderson with dignity and quiet determination. She rejects Johnson’s invitation to hold Thanksgiving with his “family” with a sincere steely performance after years of Johnson’s subtle bullying and bigotry. This sharp scene shows McGhan, at his best, his sensitivity to character and situation, but its impact falls flat because we know nothing else about her. In another context, we would be touched. Here it’s yet another distraction in McGhan’s mighty competition. The smaller characters have their moments, but they stop the flow regardless of the author’s intention. We want to return to the main story to learn more about what drives these men into space where there is a 50/50 chance they will not return. A miscalculation in thousands of miles of code, and their capsule can ricochet out into the deep space or crash into the moon. The only thing we learn about the astronaut Anders is that he leaves two tape recordings for his family. One to be played when he goes, one if not returns. We know more about what drives young Rocket.
Nine actors play multiple roles, be it a walk-on Walter Cronkite; an ingenious German physicist added Alzheimer’s; The Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space; a Newark rabbi; widow Hallie lives in a double-wide; various assistants and officials. The play is exemplary, woven with the usual precision and skill of the AD Player, heavily backed by director James Black, who is leading this far-reaching story on a fast track.
Kevin Rigdon’s ingenious scenography with its moving wavy panels that mimic the look of a rocket’s exterior adds an industrial touch to this space history, as does Clint Allen’s impressive starry sky projections that hold endless mystery. Phillip Owen’s sound design rumbles violently as the massive Saturn 5 rocket roars from the launch pad, then softens to quiet awe, via Richard Wagner, while the majestic Earthrise shows up for our intrepid explorers. Act I is overlaid with Ligeti-like ethereal music of the spheres, an epitome of soundtrack for space exploration. Paige A. Wilson’s evocative costumes scream in the late ’60s, especially Lovell’s brown-and-orange striped polyester shirt, which evokes very bad memories. Oh, the colors, the colors.
While McGhan covers the whole of 1968 in his space epic, he neglects to that extent his three astronauts. Their inspiring story, diluted and abandoned, gets lost in the stars.
Apollo 8 continues through June 5 at. 19.30 Wednesdays and Thursdays; 20.00 Fridays and Saturdays; and 2.30pm Saturdays and Sundays at AD Players at The George Theater, 5420 Westheimer. For more information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $ 25- $ 75.