'Galileo' makes viewers think

When Galileo proved that the Earth revolved around the sun, rather than the reverse, he didn't advance just science. He helped raise the working class and promoted equal rights.

That's the perspective Bertolt Brecht drives home in his thought-provoking play "The Life of Galileo Galilei," now being presented at Prospect Theater Project in Modesto.

The drama follows Galileo from his early discoveries in the late 1500s to his persecution by the Roman Catholic Church. It wraps up in 1637, when the aging scientist is reduced to hiding his writings.

Written between 1937 and 1939, the play can be difficult viewing because of its nearly three-hour running time, weighty material and limited emotional impact.

But director Jack Souza makes it more accessible by adding multimedia elements such as screen projections of the ancient model of the universe. He also effectively mixes in ethereal instrumental music by Modesto composer David Eakin.

David Barbaree, who stars as the title character, is supremely confident in the beginning of the show, convinced that church authorities will easily accept his scientific findings. He is genuinely shocked when they refuse to look into his telescope to confirm his discoveries.

The church officials are largely portrayed as idiots with no redeeming qualities. One of the most prideful is played by Roy Stevens, an international opera star from Modesto, appearing in his first nonsinging role since 1977.

There are just two women in the cast of 15, and both encourage Galileo to respect the church's wishes. Mary Pieczarka is Galileo's critical yet kind housekeeper, and Traci Sprague is his rather ditzy daughter, Virginia.

Detailed drawings of stars adorn the Prospect Theater floor and highlight the room where Galileo does his research. Brian Swander's spartan set, highlighted with pink lighting, suggests a sunrise — perhaps symbolic of the dawning Age of Enlightenment.

Throughout the drama, the playwright drives home that Galileo's discoveries caused people to question other long-held beliefs. He suggests that the poorest segments of society began to realize that they should think for themselves.

The play is a reminder about the dangers of people thinking they have the whole truth in life. There are always discoveries to be made — and some can be world changing.

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