Times Theater Writer

Jane Anderson has a real sense of pun.

Her newest show at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, "Defying Gravity," does exactly what it says. This whimsical fantasy, inspired by the Challenger space shuttle disaster, defies gravity (as in solemnity) and defies gravity (as in Sir Isaac Newton).

Anyone who can't imagine coming up with an optimistic response to this tragic incident hasn't contended with Anderson. She hasn't finished tinkering with "Gravity" yet--its first act doesn't fly--but there's a special mind and a special set of sensibilities at work here. In time, "Defying Gravity" may succeed in defying the remaining odds.

These consist of a tendency to get mired in earthbound exposition in Act I and to soar with too many possible endings in Act II. The lift-off needs to be swifter, the orbit cleaner, the final destination more specific. But there's nothing wrong with the purpose of the mission.

"Defying Gravity" is not a play in the traditional sense but a collage of scenes--a series of impressions received by a variety of fictional and semifictional characters with connections to the Challenger launch. Centrally, there is the elementary schoolteacher (Katherine Cannon) destined to go up in the shuttle, and her daughter Elizabeth (Anderson herself) destined to watch it explode.

On the periphery, we have Donna (Eugenia Bostwick), a waitress at Cape Canaveral; her boyfriend C.B. (Ernest Emling), a NASA ground mechanic; an enigmatic French painter (Sam Shamshak), who is trying to capture the event on canvas, and a pair of Winnebago tourists, Edith (Bea Silvern) and Ed (Jack Manning), there to do what tourists usually do: take pictures.

Anderson's piece does not detail the events of the launch or the shuttle's explosion (whatever this is, it is not docudrama), but it holds up a mirror to them, reflecting these characters' reactions: the tourists' high expectations and deep dismay; C.B.'s sense of guilt for the mechanical failures; Donna's concern for C.B.'s well-being.

The prime respondent is Elizabeth, of course, and it's clear from a perceptive and unsentimental monologue of bereavement written for her that Anderson is still fully in touch with her own childhood emotions. The simple language paints an anguished portrait of a bewildered child who just can't understand why Mommy's not coming back.

Anderson's other talent is her ability also to make us experience the rebirth of hope in Elizabeth. From that change of orbit, "Defying Gravity" becomes another thing: a mission so giddy on its own optimism that it doesn't quite know when to land. Anderson's verbal enthusiasms become physical metaphor, translating what had been a vocabulary of flight into fact as she gambols, first as an acrobat on circus rings, then weightlessly in mid-air like some space-suited Peter Pan.

It's a wonderful image and it succeeds in lifting the shadow of disaster that burdens the more expository first half. At this point it's the message, not the method, that comes under a cloud. Anderson is so intoxicated with her own vision of hope that she insists, with an exultation bordering on hype, on looking brightly at the future of space exploration.

There are a few other chinks in this rocket, chiefly in the design of her cast of characters. The schoolteacher is a balanced but rather bland creation. The reason why the French painter is Claude Monet, presumably transposed in time, remains known only to Anderson (dramatically, it's neutral). And Donna and C.B. give repeated indications that they'd be happiest in a sitcom.

Edith and Ed, on the other hand, are delicious. Far from being the stick figures they might so easily have been, Silvern and Manning make them simple but touching folk, real in the depth of their caring and consternation, delightful when they run off Ed's slides of the universe taken from the window of their room at the Space Hyatt. It's that kind of whimsy that distinguishes Anderson. She's at her best when she most trusts her capacity for obliqueness.

There are no sets to speak of, but a set of astral projections flavors the story. The actors are fine and Ray Singer has directed them with a feathery touch. There are plenty of adjustments still to be made but, along with gravity, Anderson defies tradition--not always expertly but always with a rich pioneering spirit. In theater as in space, that counts. Performances at 1089 N. Oxford Ave. in Hollywood run Wednesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., until June 28. Tickets: $8-$12; (213) 466-2916.

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