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Emerging from the chamber where he has been threatened with torture, the man before us seems to have withered into a sleep-walking wraith of his former, vigorous self. Shuffling forward with an unsteady gait, barefoot and listless, he stares emptily into the space before him. As awareness dawns of the presence of others in the room, he slowly brings his hands in front of him to hide the humiliating stain of moisture on his undergarments.
That this piteous figure is the 17th-century scientist Galileo Galilei makes his abjection even more unsettling to watch. And yet as portrayed by the authoritative F. Murray Abraham in the Classic Stage Company’s revival of Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo” that opened on Thursday night, the man’s hard fall from intellectual heroism to public humiliation is both shocking and somehow inevitable. For all his powerful scorn for the dogmas of the church and his belief in the power of reason to defeat ignorance, Mr. Abraham’s Galileo comes across as a man of profound pragmatism and highly sensitive flesh, with a taste for comforts and a horror of pain.
Brecht’s drama about the conflict between champions of progress and the church in Renaissance Italy was first written in 1938 in Denmark, in response to events in Germany where the rise of the Nazi party had obliterated free expression. After the war, in his revulsion at the destruction of the atomic bomb, Brecht collaborated with the great actor Charles Laughton on a new version presented in Los Angeles and subsequently on Broadway in 1947, revising the text to point up the danger in dividing science from humanism.
Brian Kulick, the artistic director of the Classic Stage Company and the director of this lucid if pallid revival, settled on Mr. Laughton’s eminently playable version, ignoring Brecht’s further revisions. As he writes in a program note, “We feel this earlier version constitutes what Brecht was most interested in communicating to an audience of Americans at the dawn of the nuclear age.”
Actually, even in this version the no-nukes angle makes minimal impact, notwithstanding Galileo’s bitter observation, in the penultimate scene, that “this age of ours turned out to be a whore, spattered with blood,” which might easily stand for Brecht’s comments on the first half of the century he was living in. Galileo’s moral disintegration under pressure from the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church, culminating in his humiliating public disavowal of the scientific advances he has dedicated his life to, remains the dominant theme. (As the Brecht scholar Eric Bentley logically points out in one of his essays on the play, “Had those who wished to stop Galileo and scientific advance had their way, there would be no atom bomb.”)
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Although Brecht is a landmark figure in 20th-century theater for his innovations in stage theory as much as his stage works, his plays often feel strangely stiff or stillborn when produced today. In Mr. Kulick’s production, performed on a stylish set by Adrianne Lobel featuring planet-shaped blobs that hover above the stage, the episodic “Galileo” makes its points about a great man’s great failings cleanly. But as is often the case with Brecht’s work, the intellectual stimulation provided by the dialectics doesn’t always make up for the lack of vitally engaging theatrical drama.
Mr. Abraham dominates the production both through his natural authority and the flashes of fiery humanity he brings to the role. Yet the lean frame doesn’t quite fit with his protégé’s scornful comment that, in agreeing to publicly abjure the very ideas he sought to champion, Galileo “saved his big gut.” Mr. Abraham infuses his performance with a physical vigor signifying that Galileo lives as much in his flesh as in his capacious mind. He exudes the earthy pragmatism that is a mark of Galileo’s intelligence but also proves to be the flaw that will erode his integrity.
The performance is admirably understated too. Even in the climactic scene in which Galileo castigates himself for his behavior — “I have betrayed my profession” — Mr. Abraham wisely avoids grandstanding, the man having become so shorn of pride that righteousness, even directed at his own failings, is now beyond him.
Brecht gave a helping hand to any actor portraying the title role by writing most of the other ones colorlessly. Galileo’s daughter Virginia (Amanda Quaid) is pious innocence personified, though there is a little asperity in Ms. Quaid’s performance that belies the character’s naïveté. Galileo’s adversaries in the church — the initially sympathetic Cardinal Barberini (Robert Dorfman), later the pope, and the more suspicious Cardinal Bellarmin (Steven Skybell) — are one-dimensional, and the actors portray them accordingly, with a slightly oversaturated quality to match their rich red cardinals’ robes.
Perhaps because he is given one of the few engaging monologues, Aaron Himelstein stands out for the quiet intensity with which he delivers the Little Monk’s argument that Galileo’s upending of hundreds of years of accepted truth may have destructive consequences for common people, who have taken comfort in the ordered universe described by Catholic orthodoxy. Jon DeVries grouses amusingly as Galileo’s assistant, Federzoni.
As Andrea, the servant son of Galileo’s housekeeper who eventually becomes his most promising protégé, Andy Phelan could use a little more firepower. Andrea is the most acutely disappointed in his mentor’s recantation, but it is through him that Galileo’s great work the “Discorsi” — written during his confinement under the Inquisition — makes its way into the world, smuggled out of Italy in Andrea’s knapsack.
But the play’s coda, in which Andrea tries to prove to a young boy that an old woman stirring porridge is not a witch, as her giant shadow makes her appear, underscores the play’s progress from optimism in human possibility to disappointment. The outcome of this final dialectical exchange between educated man and superstitious boy suggests that the power of doubt, hailed by Galileo as the precursor of knowledge, can be a sword that cuts both ways.