Regional Reviews: Chicago
Dickey focuses on three characters: a Playwright from New York (capitalization required, as the Writer describes herself thus insistently as part of her her existential crisis); the daughter of Galileo, who takes the name Maria Celeste when she is forced to enter a convent; and Galileo himself. The Writer has not simply gone to Italy to research the play she has won a grant to write, she has run to Italy to escape her life outside being a Playwright from New York. As she tries and serially fails to make headway in her research, the relationship between Galileo and his daughter unfolds against the backdrop of his conclusion that it is the Earth that moves around the sun, rather than vice versa.
Dickey embraces the meta from the beginning. The Writer (Linda Gillum) is the one to make the traditional pre-show announcements and requests. She observes the conversations between father and daughter, off downstage left, from the kind of chair dear to rehearsal spaces. The other two actors play not only Maria Celeste (Emily Bosco) and Galileo (Chiké Johnson), but also a variety of characters the Writer meets as she tries, with indifferent success, to navigate institutions and spaces, speaking no Italian and clearly having little in the way of information or a plan for going about her research.
The material devoted to exploring the father-daughter relationship, and the side excursions it makes into faith, intellectual curiosity, ethics, and what humans owe one another, is delightful. The Writer's commentary and narration are critical to why this aspect of the play is so successful. It is often funny and even more often moving and profound, and the blend is effective and a testament to the skill of Dickey, Lyons, and the cast.
The Writer's individual story is not as well realized. Although it seems immediately clear that the character is going through a divorce, the dialogue has the character (intermittently) obsessed with their "important papers." Although her interactions with the staff at her hotel and the museums and archives she visits have no shortage of humor, once the play turns its attention to real professional struggles and the actual personal crisis the character is experiencing, the play drags a bit. There's some piling on of how unprepared the Writer is and how arcane bureaucracy is standing in her way. There is a wonderful revival of interest when she finally gets her hands on Maria Celeste's letters and the two women connect across time, but that's unfortunately counterbalanced by a scene in the present day where the Writer encounters a long-divorced scientist. The conversation between them feels overly orchestrated, and the kiss they ultimately share does not feel earned or necessary.
But much of the play is a real joy that is wonderfully brought to life by the visuals. The set itself (scenic design by Yeaji Kim) seems as though it will be quite flat and traditional, with a created proscenium and a pointedly artificial looking moon looming downstage left. But with a single flat on a rail and a host desk that doubles as a librarian's command center, it turns out to be impressively dynamic, imparting the needed feel of rushing through an appealing though unfamiliar city. John Boesche's wonderful projections and Becca Jeffords' lighting design are also key to bringing Florence and Tuscany in general to life, as well as contributing that sense of being mournfully, if productively, a little out of place and a little lost.
All three cast members are very good at handling both the drama and the emotional connections. Even in the parts of the play that pay off less, Gillum's timing and charisma keep the audience engaged. She and Bosco craft an impressive trust and clearly studied one another's language and rhythms carefully, which more than carries the moment when their connection becomes both literal and reciprocal.
Chiké Johnson is utterly compelling as not just Galileo, but the host of characters he plays. His delivery of "Italian, Italian, Italian!" each time the Writer must confess that she speaks only English is perfect enough to carry a joke that easily could have flopped. He transforms not just with the donning of a blazer or the robe of a friar, but in the way he holds his body and feels the language of different characters. His rapport with both Bosco and Gillum is remarkable.
Galileo's Daughter runs through May 14, 2023, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit RemyBumppo.org.