Except for a record player, Jayme McGhan’s apollo 8, a world premiere from AD Players, employs all the bells and whistles an avant-garde theatrical production could ask for: a giant backstage cyclorama for high-definition projections of the heavens; a sound system turned up to 11 to rival that of a rock concert; glorious lighting effects; fluid stage direction.
What the work does not have is coherence.
This is 1968, and the US space program, hampered by the horrendous Apollo 1 disaster and by contemporary social upheavals and an unpopular war abroad, needs a victory. You need a moment of wellness.
The December 1968 space mission was epic: NASA’s first manned trip around the Moon. While it was a hasty decision to send the men for a “translunar injection” (never underestimate the dispassionate jargon of astronaut language), everyone in the space program feared losing to the Russians. We had to get there first, if only to honor the memory of President Kennedy and his 1961 speech to Congress in which he advocated “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” He specified, “before the end of this decade”. Russia had already sent the first satellite into space and the first man into Earth orbit. In the dire atmosphere of civil unrest, the Cold War, and Vietnam, this was unacceptable. We had to beat the Russians.
McGhan’s account is epic and encompasses everything that happened during 1968. While the turbulent social protests, assassinations and Vietnam are still relevant today and color our history, these momentous events have little to do with our space war with Russia or the incredible effort by NASA’s army of mathematicians, doctors, technicians, and scientists to bring about Apollo 8. The year 1968 defines an era, but not necessarily Apollo 8. This significant event has its own specific turbulent history, however , McGhan adorns it with bizarre people and scenes that are as padded as a space suit.
These distractions eat up needed time and precious stage space. We know exactly why they’re here: to show how ordinary people were inspired by the US 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 main story is packed with natural suspense, impending catastrophe, and the great wonder of space, these peripheral digressions get in the way. They drag the game when it should rise and float without gravity.
The three astronaut athletes Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders (played by Kevin Dean, Jake Speck, Nick Farco) seem no more important than young Rocket (Sophie Lowe) and depressed mother 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 her doting husband Roberto (Ciara Shabree Anderson and Philip Kershaw). All characters are written at the same level, given the same weight. If everyone is important, is anyone? The work loses strength and focus. Our heroes return to the bench.
LBJ (the prickly James Belcher) confides in Ginni Whittington, the first black presidential secretary, whom McGhan details and Anderson defines with dignity and quiet determination. She turns down Johnson’s invitation to celebrate Thanksgiving with his “his family” with a heartfelt comeuppance after years of Johnson’s subtle pandering and intolerance. This incisive scene shows McGhan at her best, her sensitivity in dealing with the character and the situation, but her impact fades because we don’t know anything else about her. In a different context, we would be moved. Here, it’s another diversion from McGhan’s mighty contest. The secondary characters have their moments, but they stop the flow whatever the author’s intention. We long 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 your capsule could bounce off into deep space or crash into the moon. All we know about astronaut Anders is that he leaves two recordings for his family. One to play with when he leaves, another if he doesn’t come back. We know more about what drives young Rocket.
Nine actors play multiple roles, be it a walk-on Walter Cronkite; a brilliant German physicist suffering from Alzheimer’s; Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space; a rabbi from Newark; widowed Hallie who lives in a double wide; a variety of assistants and officials. The acting is exemplary, interwoven with the usual AD Players precision and skill, heavily backed by director James Black, who keeps this sprawling account on a fast trajectory.
Kevin Rigdon’s clever set design with its moving undulating panels that mimic the look of the exterior of a rocket adds an industrial edge to this space story, as do Clint Allen’s stunning projections of starry skies that hold endless mystery. Phillip Owen’s sound design rumbles fiercely as the massive Saturn 5 rocket roars from the launch pad, then softens to silent amazement, via Richard Wagner, as the majestic Earthrise appears before our intrepid explorers. Act I is layered with ethereal music of the spheres in the style of Ligeti, a quintessential soundtrack for space exploration. Paige A. Willson’s evocative costumes evoke the late ’60s, especially Lovell’s brown and orange striped polyester shirt, which brings back bad memories. Oh the colors, the colors.
While McGhan covers all of 1968 in his space epic, he profoundly neglects his three astronauts. His inspiring story, diluted and desolate, is lost in the stars.
Apollo 8 continues through June 5 at 7:30 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and at 2:30 pm on Saturdays and Sundays at AD Players at The George Theatre, 5420 Westheimer. For more information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $25-$75.