F. Murray Abraham in Galileo
(© Joan Marcus)
F. Murray Abraham in Galileo
(© Joan Marcus)
The timeless antagonism between religion and science takes center stage in Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, now playing at Classic Stage Company. And while a play about the famed astronomer's battles with the Catholic Church over his discovery that the earth rotates around the sun could make for a heavy evening of theatergoing, Brian Kulick's gently naturalistic staging, starring F. Murray Abraham in the title role, makes the work an easily digestible, and sporadically provocative, bio-drama.

Brecht's play -- being performed in the 1947 version penned in collaboration with legendary film and stage star Charles Laughton -- focuses on the period in the 17th-century scientist's life when he not only introduces the telescope in Italy, but also discovers that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

As he disseminates his findings, Galileo finds he's greeted not with enthusiasm, but with hostility as centuries of Church doctrine is turned on its head. Eventually, he's called before a Papal inquisition which demands that he recant or face dire consequences for both himself and his pious daughter Virginia (imbued with both sweetness and a tart edge by Amanda Quaid).

At the center of the production is Abraham's uncharacteristically subdued performance as the man whose work causes the populace of the Continent to quake. There's no question that the performer communicates the scientist's simmering passion for his work, often bringing to mind a particularly committed professor. In addition, he captures the character's gentleness, which, on some levels, leads to Galileo's final decision regarding the Church's demands on him. But Abraham's muted performance fails to fully convey the sensualist side of Brecht's creation: the man who is as in love of good food and drink as he is his work.

Alongside Murray is a seven-man ensemble, who play Galileo's intimates and his persecutors, and several members of this sharply drilled company deliver spirited yet curiously uniform performances in several dozen roles. For instance, Nick Westrate, who primarily plays the foppish Ludovico, imbues all of his other roles with the same effeteness that characterizes his performance as Galileo's well-heeled student who becomes Virginia's intended.

Similarly, Jon DeVries brings a garrulous earthiness to his roles, which range from an "Old Cardinal" to Galileo's assistant Federzoni, and Andy Phelan's work as both Andrea, who serves Galileo, and a Medici prince are wide-eyed youthful naifs. These turns are certainly distinct, and theatergoers may sense that Kulick has instilled this homogeneity in the company as his lone "Brechtian" touch, to underscore the types of men who react to Galileo's work.

Shrewdly, Kulick allows Steven Skybell and Robert Dorfmann to break out of such a mold. And each actor delivers sensitively conceived portraits of both Galileo's powerful supporters and detractors.

This genuinely compelling drama unfolds within a posh environment from scenic designer Adrianne Lobel, which, with its central circular playing area and over which large spheres hang and are backed by a large circular screen for Jan Hartley's excellent projections, brings to mind an abstracted observatory. Justin Townsend provides the keenly conceived lighting design that simultaneously evokes the warmth of the Italian countryside while also shining a harsh light on the moral conundrums that Galileo faces.