- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

Ted van Griethuysen seems born to play whatever role he’s in, whether it’s the haunted academic A.E. Housman in “The Invention of Love,” or the majestic Phillip II in “Don Carlos.” Now, he brings to rugged, flawed life the brilliant 17th-century scientist Galileo in Studio Theatre’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo,” newly and bracingly translated by playwright David Hare.

For all of the play’s intellectualism and labored contemplation of the nature of man, it is the intimacy and human drama teased out of the material by Mr. Hare that stays with you. Indeed, the debates pitting science against faith and society against morality are compelling. Yet the portrait of Galileo — an intellect who can plot the heavens, but a man oblivious to the intentions of the people surrounding him — is what gives the play mercy and depth.

Galileo is determined to prove that the Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun, rather than the opposite, knowing full well that the Roman Catholic Church believes such theories are heresy. While he may have his head literally in the clouds, Galileo as played by Mr. van Griethuysen is not the stereotypical distracted scientist. Instead, he is a man compromised by his appetites. He likes good food and wine, likes to live well and is perpetually in debt. And he is not without guile: He passes off a telescope from the Netherlands as his own invention and is handsomely rewarded by his wealthy patrons.

Like many a sensualist, Galileo is so finely tuned that he crumbles at the mere suggestion of pain. When the church finally gets enough of Galileo’s threatening theories and begins an “investigation,” the Cardinal Inquisitor (the silken-voiced George Tynan Crowley) need only show him the instruments of torture to get him to recant.

The character of Galileo is further revealed in his dealings with other people. He is doing great things and can’t be bothered with social niceties. He is shockingly dismissive of his sensitive daughter, Virginia (Bette Cassatt, in a lovely, shaded performance), and blithely cavalier to his protege, Andrea Sarti (Rob McClure), and his lab assistants. His failure to read people’s true motives brings about his downfall. At the end, however, he emerges not as a sad and compromised figure, but, rather, as someone stubbornly and quietly triumphant. His ideas have survived, and astronomers beyond Italy are pushing mankind into the Age of Science.

Galileo is the center of the play’s universe, and director David Salter keeps each character in perpetual, swirling orbit around him, giving the production a swift, celestial rhythm that is not only visually arresting, but is a welcome counterpoint to the play’s inherent speechiness. (The play is over emotionally when Galileo recants, but there is another half-hour or so of needless agitprop on the importance of ideas in our lives and how the church is an evil force.)

Helen Q. Huang’s burnished-gold and hammered-copper set features interlocking circles and spheres that give the sensation of being inside a model of the solar system. The rough-hewn costumes are a clever contrast to the cool aesthetics of the set.

The large cast does an admirable job, with Lawrence Redmond, Valerie Leonard, Gary Sloan and Karl Miller fleshing out their characters so they are more than pawns in Galileo’s personal cosmos.

This is a play of ideas, not only about the role of religion in science, but also about the rise of the merchant class, the supremacy of truth and beauty, and whether ethics should figure into scientific discoveries. What ultimately impresses about “The Life of Galileo” is how expertly it engages the intellect without sacrificing the heart.

***

WHAT: “The Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through December 7.

TICKETS: $33 to $45

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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