Except for a turntable, Jayme McGhan's Apollo 8, a world premiere from A.D. Players, employs all the bells and whistles that a state-of-the-art theater production could ask for: a gigantic upstage cyclorama for high def projections of the heavens; a sound system cranked up to 11 to rival that of a rock concert; glorious lighting effects; fluid stage direction.
What the play doesn't possess is coherence.
It is 1968, and America's space program, hobbled by the horrendous disaster of Apollo 1 and by contemporary social disruptions and an unpopular war overseas, needs a win. It needs a feel-good moment.
The December 1968 space mission was epic – NASA's first manned voyage around the moon. While it was a rushed decision to send men into “trans lunar injection” (never underestimate the dispassionate lingo of astronaut-speak), everyone in the space program feared losing out to the Russians. We had to get there first, if only to honor the memory of President Kennedy and his 1961 address to Congress where 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 sent the first satellite into space and the first man into Earth orbit. In the frightful atmosphere of civil unrest, Cold War and Vietnam, this was unacceptable. We had to beat the Russians.
McGhan's tale is epic and encompasses everything that happened during 1968. While the turbulent social protests, the assassinations, and Vietnam remain relevant today and tinge our history, these momentous events have little to do with our space war with Russia or the incredible effort of the army of NASA mathematicians, physicians, technicians, and scientists to bring Apollo 8 to fruition. The year 1968 defines an era, but not necessarily Apollo 8. This significant event has its own specific turbulent history, yet McGhan embroiders it with extraneous people and scenes that are as padded as a spacesuit.
These distractions eat up necessary time and precious stage space. We know exactly why they are here – to show how ordinary folks were inspired by the U.S. space program and how the race to the moon changed their lives for the better. This is noble up to a point, but when the primary tale is replete with its own natural suspense, imminent catastrophe, and the vast wonder of space, these peripheral digressions get in the way. They drag down the play when it should soar and float gravity-free.
The three jock astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders (played by Kevin Dean, Jake Speck, Nick Farco) seem no more important than young fatherless Rocket (Sophie Lowe) and depressed mom Hattie (Christy Watkins in a highly nuanced performance); 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 same level, given the same heft. If everyone's important, is anyone? The play loses force and focus. Our heroes get back-benched.
LBJ (prickly James Belcher) relies on Ginni Whittington, the first black presidential secretary, who is detailed by McGhan and defined by Anderson with dignity and quiet resolve. She rebuffs Johnson's invitation to have Thanksgiving with his “family” with a sincere steely comeuppance after years of Johnson's subtle pandering and bigotry. This incisive scene shows McGhan at his best, his sensitivity dealing with character and situation, but its impact falls flat because we know nothing else about her. In a different context, we'd be moved. Here, it's another distraction inside McGhan's mighty pageant. The minor characters have their moments, but they stop the flow whatever the author's intention. We ache to return to the main story to learn more about what drives these men into space where there's a 50/50 chance they won't return. One miscalculation in the thousands of miles of code, and their capsule might ricochet into deep space or crash into the moon. All we learn about astronaut Anders is that he leaves two tape recordings for his family. One to be played when he leaves, one if doesn't return. We know more about what drives young Rocket.
Nine actors play multiple roles, be it a walk-on Walter Cronkite; a brilliant German physicist addled with Alzheimer's; Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space; a Newark rabbi; widowed Hallie living in a double-wide; assorted assistants and functionaries. The acting is exemplary, woven with A.D. Players' usual precision and proficiency, strongly abetted by director James Black, who keeps this sprawling account on swift trajectory.
Kevin Rigdon's ingenious set design with its moving corrugated panels that mimic the look of a rocket's exterior adds an industrial touch to this space story, as do Clint Allen's impressive projections of starry skies that hold infinite mystery. Phillip Owen's sound design rumbles ferociously as the massive Saturn 5 rocket roars from the launch pad, then softens to quiet awe, via Richard Wagner, as the majestic Earthrise appears to our intrepid explorers. Act I is overlaid with Ligeti-like ethereal music of the spheres, a quintessential soundtrack for space exploration. Paige A. Willson's evocative costumes scream late '60s, especially Lovell's brown-and-orange striped polyester shirt which brings back very bad memories. Oh, the colors, the colors.
While McGhan covers all of 1968 in his space epic, he sorely neglects his three astronauts. Their inspiring story, diluted and forlorn, gets lost in the stars.
Apollo 8 continues through June 5 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at A.D. Players at The George Theater, 5420 Westheimer. For more information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $25-$75.