Evaluate: Apollo 8 at A.S. Players on the George

Except for a turntable, Jayme McGhan’s Apollo 8, a world premiere from A.D. Players, employs all of the bells and whistles {that a} state-of-the-art theater manufacturing might ask for: a huge upstage cyclorama for prime def projections of the heavens; a sound system cranked as much as 11 to rival that of a rock live performance; superb lighting results; fluid stage path.

What the play would not possess is coherence.

It is 1968, and America’s area program, hobbled by the horrendous catastrophe of Apollo 1 and by modern social disruptions and an unpopular warfare abroad, wants a win. It wants a feel-good second.

The December 1968 area mission was epic – NASA’s first manned voyage across the moon. While it was a rushed choice to ship males into “trans lunar injection” (by no means underestimate the dispassionate lingo of astronaut-speak), everybody within the area program feared shedding out to the Russians. We needed to get there first, if solely to honor the reminiscence of President Kennedy and his 1961 tackle to Congress the place he advocated the “landing of a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” He specified, “before this decade is out.” Russia had already despatched the primary satellite tv for pc into area and the primary man into Earth orbit. In the frightful environment of civil unrest, Cold War and Vietnam, this was unacceptable. We needed to beat the Russians.

McGhan’s story is epic and encompasses all the pieces that occurred throughout 1968. While the turbulent social protests, the assassinations, and Vietnam stay related at the moment and tinge our historical past, these momentous occasions have little to do with our area warfare with Russia or the unimaginable effort of the military of NASA mathematicians, physicians, technicians, and scientists to deliver Apollo 8 to fruition. The yr 1968 defines an period, however not essentially Apollo 8. This vital occasion has its personal particular turbulent historical past, but McGhan embroiders it with extraneous folks and scenes which can be as padded as a spacesuit.

These distractions eat up vital time and valuable stage area. We know precisely why they’re right here – to indicate how odd people have been impressed by the U.S. area program and the way the race to the moon modified their lives for the higher. This is noble up to a degree, however when the first story is replete with its personal pure suspense, imminent disaster, and the huge marvel of area, these peripheral digressions get in the best way. They drag down the play when it ought to soar and float gravity-free.

The three jock astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders (performed by Kevin Dean, Jake Speck, Nick Farco) appear no extra vital than younger fatherless Rocket (Sophie Lowe) and depressed mother Hattie (Christy Watkins in a extremely nuanced efficiency); Rabbi Adler and his underachieving son Hal (Rick Hodgin and Jake Speck), or Cuban math wizard Alma and doting husband Roberto (Ciara Shabree Anderson and Philip Kershaw). All characters are written on the identical stage, given the identical heft. If everybody’s vital, is anybody? The play loses drive and focus. Our heroes get back-benched.

LBJ (prickly James Belcher) depends on Ginni Whittington, the primary black presidential secretary, who’s detailed by McGhan and outlined by Anderson with dignity and quiet resolve. She rebuffs Johnson’s invitation to have Thanksgiving along with his “family” with a honest steely comeuppance after years of Johnson’s delicate pandering and bigotry. This incisive scene exhibits McGhan at his greatest, his sensitivity coping with character and scenario, however its impression falls flat as a result of we all know nothing else about her. In a special context, we might be moved. Here, it is one other distraction inside McGhan’s mighty pageant. The minor characters have their moments, however they cease the move regardless of the writer’s intention. We ache to return to the principle story to be taught extra about what drives these males into area the place there is a 50/50 probability they will not return. One miscalculation within the 1000’s of miles of code, and their capsule may ricochet into deep area or crash into the moon. All we find out about astronaut Anders is that he leaves two tape recordings for his household. One to be performed when he leaves, one if would not return. We know extra about what drives younger Rocket.

Nine actors play a number of roles, be it a walk-on Walter Cronkite; a superb German physicist addled with Alzheimer’s; Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the primary lady in area; a Newark rabbi; widowed Hallie residing in a double-wide; assorted assistants and functionaries. The performing is exemplary, woven with A.D. Players’ ordinary precision and proficiency, strongly abetted by director James Black, who retains this sprawling account on swift trajectory.

Kevin Rigdon’s ingenious set design with its shifting corrugated panels that mimic the look of a rocket’s exterior provides an industrial contact to this area story, as do Clint Allen’s spectacular projections of starry skies that maintain infinite thriller. Phillip Owen’s sound design rumbles ferociously as the huge Saturn 5 rocket roars from the launch pad, then softens to quiet awe, through Richard Wagner, because the majestic Earthrise seems to our intrepid explorers. Act I is overlaid with Ligeti-like ethereal music of the spheres, a quintessential soundtrack for area exploration. Paige A. Willson’s evocative costumes scream late ’60s, particularly Lovell’s brown-and-orange striped polyester shirt which brings again very dangerous reminiscences. Oh, the colours, the colours.

While McGhan covers all of 1968 in his area epic, he sorely neglects his three astronauts. Their inspiring story, diluted and forlorn, will get misplaced within the stars.

Apollo 8 continues by June 5 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and a pair of:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at A.D. Players at The George Theater, 5420 Westheimer. For extra info, name 713-526-2721 or go to adplayers.org. $25-$75.

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