Optimistic LIFE OF GALILEO Celebrates a Forward Thinking Life

By the early 17th century, Galileo Galilei was caught in the crosshairs of the Church for his “heretical” discoveries about the solar system. He refuted Aristotelian astronomy and challenged religious dogma by declaring that Earth could not be the center of the universe. His propositions disrupted prevailing ideology, reframing considerations of heaven and even society.

David Edgar’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s third and final version of Life of Galileo chronicles roughly three decades in the scientific explorer’s life.  This rendition presents Galileo not as a heroic figure, but more as an optimist, a great thinker, researcher and educator, who is forced succumb to outside pressures and suppress his ideas for self-preservation.

The Burning Coal production of this play, performed outdoors at Dorothea Dix Park on a circular two-level platform with four doorless entryways and lights crossing over the top, navigates through numerous complex themes. In fact, Jerome Davis’ staging emphasizes Galileo’s fascination with astronomy as the scientist’s followers and detractors enter his space, which can be a little bit dizzying at times.

What centers the drama is Julie Oliver’s inspiring performance as Galileo. She is at her best explaining difficult concepts and showing true delight when understanding is achieved. Here her range is on full display, from playing into Galileo’s self-deprecating humor to his wry ruefulness in every scene.

Galileo cajoles his pupil, Andrea, into opening his eyes and head to possibilities as well as the power of human reasoning. As the young Andrea, Dani Coan lends a delightful exuberant response to the wonders the scientist shares. 

Kimmy Fiorentino is captivating as Galileo’s daughter, Virginia, and a constant reminder of the powerful influence of the Church. While she is rebuffed by her father when she asks for explanations about his discoveries, she remains loyal to him throughout his lifetime. Fiorentino offers her Virginia a subtle, but powerful agency in her portrayal of the long-suffering daughter.

Other cast members perform multiple roles, highlighting their versatility. Simon Kaplan offers an engaging portrait of the loyal lens grinder, Federzoni, sells the doddiness of an Old Cardinal, and effectively conveys the conflicted temperament of Barberini, a member of the Church who is sympathetic to Galileo’s ideas but is forced to bow to the demands of his office. Randolph Curtis Rand gives a commandingly menacing portrait as the Cardinal Inquisitor, underscoring how much of the Church’s rule was based on fear.

Davis makes some bold decisions with this production, from staging it under the stars to casting Julie Oliver in the title role. Unfortunately, some of that ambitiousness gets lost in technical issues. On opening night, some singers were too far from the mics, and the volume on the speakers needed to be adjusted down. With the audience positioned on all sides of the stage, sight lines are often blocked, which works in some scenes, but mutes some of the intensity of the drama in others.

Still, this production seems timely with the current atmosphere of book banning and muzzling of classroom content. Galileo believed in the triumph of reason and championed the right of people to think for themselves. But that is dangerous to authority, especially when it challenges the status quo. Old narratives are clung to even as they are proven false. It is not hard to see why the Church wanted to control the flow of knowledge, much as some want to control what children learn today. Galileo desperately wanted to pass on his knowledge and encourage independent thinking, with the full realization that not doing so would be worse than shouting truth into a void. Sadly, this situation seems to persist.

The Burning Coal production of Life of Galileo runs through April 24 at Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh. For more information visit https://burningcoal.org/.

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