Photo by Jose Uribe / Nomee Photography
Galileo’s Daughter, now playing at Theater Wit in a Remy Bumppo production, is a very short play, clocking in at under eighty minutes. Focusing on three characters—Galileo, his daughter Marie Celeste, and the unnamed Writer who has traveled to Florence to read the daughter’s letters in order to learn more about her relationship with her famous father…and perhaps somehow find a way to deal with her marriage’s dissolution. The play’s actual writer, Jessica Dickey, and the director, Marti Lyons, employ just about every theatrical technique at their disposal to elevate this tale of three people who are all searching for ways to deal with difficult truths, maintain the play’s inherent poignance, and entertain the audience at the same time. In doing so, they create something both complicated and complex that celebrates both art and science and opens the door between them.
From the outset, in the past, we see that Galileo (Chiké Johnson) and his daughter (Emily Bosco) share companionship, trust, and love. And that is not all that they share: when the astronomer discovers, through his observations of the moons of Jupiter, that Copernicus was correct in believing that the visible objects in the universe revolve around the sun and not—as Ptolemy and the Catholic Church urged—the Earth, he immediately shows the proof to his eager daughter and would-be assistant. This knowledge renders her complicit to his “heresy,” and when he realizes that he is bound both by science and, yes, religion—wouldn’t want Church authorities preaching an avoidable lie, right?—and he will need to go to Rome to tell someone (a Cardinal friend), they both immediately recognize the danger. This leads him to protect his daughter by ensconcing her in a local convent, promising that he will always write to her and allow her to aid him by transcribing documents.
It is the clear love that these two had for each other as well as Marie Celeste’s passionate efforts to free her father after the Inquisition finds him guilty of heresy that intrigues the Writer (Linda Gillum). She obtains a grant to go to Italy, hoping to find the strength of that bond and perhaps make some sense of her own situation. The Writer, in Florence’s present, believes that reading those documents will shake loose some universal truth not of the astronomical variety but of the human one. In her efforts, we see a reflection of a lesson that Galileo teaches his daughter: the important difference between “complicated” and “complex”: something complicated is difficult to understand but ultimately knowable, like auto mechanics, while something “complex” involves relationships between people or systems that make clear knowledge impossible. (You can figure out your child’s homework, no matter how complicated, but the reason she fails to turn it in every day after doing it is complex and unfathomable.)
The play jumps back and forth in time, depending on who is in focus: the Writer as she sorts through the complicated issues (language barriers, social hierarchies) in the way of her task and the father/daughter team trying to assay and overcome the complexities of the boundaries between science, religion, and politics. Dickey’s use of the “Galileo” actor—in this case, Johnson—as virtually everyone else met in either timeline allows for humor (which the actor delivers brilliantly) and creates an additional level of complication, this one having to do with the relationship between a playwright and her audience.
The absurdity of the Writer trying to figure things out in a place where she does not understand the language is translated into everyone she meets saying what she hears as “Italian, Italian, Italian.” A miscommunication leads a guide to send her across town in her search for the documents only to find, once she’s there, that she was in the right place from the start. She meets up with multiple complications and impediments in her journey. What she perhaps does not fully comprehend is the complexity of her quest; i.e. that she is searching not only for a link to the powerful love of this daughter but also for a way to make sense of her own life hundreds of years later.
The three actors are all very strong. Johnson is loving as Galileo, menacing as a rector trying to figure out if the young nun now in his charge also believes her father’s heresies, and hilarious in his multiple comic roles. Bosco makes the deep, powerful love between this woman and her incarcerated father almost palpable as she writes letter after letter trying to free him…and simultaneously creating the object of the Writer’s present-day search. Gillum allows her Writer character to be many things at once. She is driven in her desire to read the letters, she is broken by the divorce she is desperately putting off, she is enthralled by the beauty that she finds in Florence, and she is astounded to see in Galileo’s inventions attention not only to science but to art; that they are far more beautiful than they needed to be is a complexity she ultimately decides simply to admire rather than dissect.
Lyons makes all of these interrelating elements clear (or anyway as clear as complex systems can be) with her blocking as well as her use of John Boesche’s beautiful projections. Yeaji Kim’s set is pretty—though I question whether the use of a single sliding panel is really necessary—but its true value lies in its ability to become a screen for us to see the heavens, the Italian countryside, the convent, the streets of Florence, and (perhaps especially) the displays of Galileo’s gorgeous artistic inventions. These projections create depth and motion on what is actually a simple unit set and allow Lyons and her actors space to really develop Dickey’s poetic and often overlapping dialogue in all of its beautiful complexity.
Ultimately, this lovely and deeply philosophical (not to mention educational) play, at its core, is a reflection of Galileo’s most famous invention, the telescope. Looked through in the usual way, from the smaller end, it is able to make far-away things seem closer. Looking through the larger end, though, can put the universe—and our small place in it—in perspective. Our personal troubles feel far less confining when viewed in relationship to everything and everyone else. Gillum’s Writer finally sees this universal truth, though knowing it doesn’t make the pain go away. Maybe, though, it can allow her to deal with it.
Remy Bumppo’s production of Galileo’s Daughter is playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, until May 14. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.