Neighborhood ‘Galileo’ Production Shows His Greatness and Defects

The Life of Galileo

Play by Bertolt Brecht, translated by David Hare.

Directed by David Wheeler. Set and puppets, David Fichter. Costumes, Heidi Hermiller. Lights, Kenneth Helvig. Music and sound, Ramon Castillo. Masks, Eric Bornstein.

Presented by: Catalyst Collaborative@MIT and Underground Railway Theater.

At: Central Square Theater, Cambridge
(Just up Mass. Ave past Random Hall before Economy Hardware and Mary Chung’s)

Through May 17. Tickets, $32, 866-811-4111

You may think, after the Huntington’s recent “Two Men of Florence,” that you have seen enough of Galileo Galilei for one season. Please don’t let that keep you away from David Wheeler’s rich and vibrant production of the Bertolt Brecht classic “The Life of Galileo,” at the Central Square Theater.

Presented by Catalyst Collaborative@MIT and Underground Railway Theater, this “Galileo” has a relatively bare stage and simple costumes. But Heidi Hermiller’s costumes get the job done, and David Fichter supplements the minimal set — a floor decorated with a sunburst, some scaffolding to serve as parapet or observatory — with stunning murals on the theater’s side walls. Kenneth Helvig’s lighting illuminates key elements of these murals, from the Romulus and Remus statue symbolizing Rome to the looming sphere of Jupiter, as they come into play.

Wheeler also deploys his actors expertly along the thrusting rectangle of the stage, always focusing our attention just where it should be while maintaining visual variety and interest. It’s a large cast — 13, many playing multiple roles — but we always know just who is the focus of each scene.

Much of the time, of course, that’s Galileo, the Renaissance scientist doing battle against the forces of darkness to establish the reign of reason, specifically in the matter of whether Earth revolves around the sun. But Brecht’s Galileo is a fascinatingly flawed human being, not a heroic icon, and the playwright is at least as interested in his flaws as in his greatness: not just his weakness in recanting when faced with the terrifying power of the Church, but his culpability, in Brecht’s eyes, for placing pure science above social progress and the good of humanity.

That last point might sound dangerously didactic, but the production neatly puts it in historical context with a single deft stroke: the boom and flash of a nuclear explosion, reminding us that the play, though begun in 1938, did not premiere in its final form until 1947, under the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Brecht saw the courage it took to fight for science, but also the arrogance that could take science too far.

All of this may seem tediously abstract for the stage, but Brecht, in David Hare’s lean and vivid translation, maintains an essential balance between ideas and actions, philosophy and plot. This “Galileo” is not a tract but a story, and an engrossing one. And Wheeler makes sure that his actors give us the story.

As Galileo, Richard McElvain is crotchety, impatient, funny, and wise. An unfortunate blond hairpiece creates a minor distraction in the astronomer’s younger days, but even that doesn’t detract from McElvain’s finely textured, completely engaging performance. In the lively universe that Wheeler sets spinning before us, McElvain is the sun.

The planets around him, though, each get a chance to shine. Lewis D. Wheeler, as Galileo’s student Andrea Sarti, makes a particularly sharp foil to his mentor as he berates him for recanting; Stephen Russell contributes subtle, specific work in a variety of roles, particularly that of the lens cutter who helps Galileo refine his telescope; Steven Barkhimer has an amusingly pompous gravitas as an academic adversary — and the year’s best list of multiple roles in a single production: “Chancellor, Inquisitor, Peasant.”

Debra Wise (Underground Railway’s artistic director) brings a fluttery, warmhearted energy to the role of Andrea’s mother, and Amanda Collins is touchingly sincere in the highly fictionalized role of Galileo’s daughter, here named Virginia. In addition, Wheeler elicits detailed and natural performances from the two children onstage, a poised Tim Traversey as the arrogant young Cosimo de Medici and a lively Andrew Cekala as the curious young Andrea Sarti.

The production, with intermission, runs close to three hours; add another hour or so if you plan to take in any of the intriguing pre-performance symposia listed on the theater’s website. It’s a full evening — but an intensely rewarding one. And every season has room for one more of those.