PlayMakers Repertory Company has a history of staging epic scripts with impressive technical elements, fine acting, and astute direction. In Bertolt Brecht‘s Life of Galileo, the company sets a new bar for its own standards with a stunning amalgam of text and talent that make gripping entertainment out of universally unresolved debates. The dazzling sets and lighting, sharp characterizations, and tautly-sprung direction demand the highest accolades.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the Italian mathematician whose discoveries in astronomy, physics, and engineering dubbed him the “father of modern science,” fought his whole life against the limitations of academic and religious dogma. His unfettered determination to convince professors and popes of his discoveries led to a trial in 1633 in which, under threat of torture, he recanted all his writings and was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life.

Brecht wrote the first version of his play in 1938 while in exile from Germany, having fled Hitler’s regime. Galileo’s plight stood in for all those up against Nazi suppression, but Brecht revised the play twice more: in 1947 to reflect the use of science for harm after the explosion of the atomic bomb, and in 1956 to address the growing Cold War situation. In each case, Galileo’s dilemma was a universal symbol of the fight for truth and reason.

Brecht’s brand of theatre purposely disconnects the audience from the reality of the storyline through a variety of techniques, including conflicting styles of presenting each scene, having stage equipment visible to emphasize that the story is not real, and using a narrator to further reduce the illusion of reality. Although the purpose is to encourage the audience to think about the play’s themes, the effect can sometimes be off-putting and dissatisfying.

Although PRC’s production employs all the Brechtian style elements, it does so in a completely enthralling way that buoys the audience along, despite a three-hour duration (including one intermission) and some lengthy speeches that over-make their points. Joseph Discher‘s script adaptation, with its easy-flowing, contemporary language, keeps the play from being stodgy or didactic.

The printed program lists the timeframe as “then, now, and later” and the setting as a futuristic seed bank where data files of past scientists’ lives have been stored. Workers happen across Galileo’s file and open it, bringing his story to life.

Jim Findlay‘s imposing set includes a central area with modern rolling desks and chairs, a raised area in back with massive data banks sporting video screens on the ends, a metal-frame staircase leading to an upper crosswalk and a giant circular room framed in neon and Plexiglass, which serves as Galileo’s study, a dance floor, and a holding cell. Over the audience hangs a half-dozen large, round screens, like planets, on which text, maps, photos, and live videos are projected. Kate McGee‘s lighting alternately supplies surgical brilliance, sunny warmth, and foreboding shadows. Most of Grier Coleman‘s costumes are comfortably contemporary and appropriate to characters’ station and age, while the raiments of academic dons and high-ranking Catholic clergy are breathtakingly sumptuous.

PRC’s producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch helms this production with utter confidence, infusing the staging with crackling pace, clarity of blocking, and precisely drawn characters. Although the script is weighty with scientific and theological concepts, the actors make them easily understood through their characters’ enthusiasm or skepticism. Time and again, lines leap out like flashes of lightning in their illumination of present day political and religious conflicts, making it seem the play was written yesterday.

Ron Menzel‘s Galileo was fully formed and deeply moving on opening night. Galileo’s burning need to convince everyone of his discoveries was conveyed with mesmerizing and often humorous intensity. Menzel made the character loveable and charming, as well as sometimes overbearing and quick to anger. For the sheer amount of lines, especially those explaining astronomy and physics, Menzel deserves credit, managing them all with aplomb.

Kathryn Hunter-Williams again proved her veteran status in four roles, including Galileo’s friend Sagredo, who is amazed by Galileo’s discoveries but terrified by the censure they’ll bring, and as Cardinal Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII), whose mathematical background makes him sympathetic to Galileo’s dilemma but who ultimately must give in to his office’s expectations. The indefatigable Ray Dooley found fussy humor in Galileo’s academic curator, sour snootiness as a doubting philosopher, and chilling power as the Cardinal Inquisitor.

Other notably strong performances in the sixteen-member cast included Geoffrey Culbertson as the wealthy Ludovico, conservative suitor to Galileo’s daughter, Virginia; and Sarah Elizabeth Keyes, whose portrayal of Virginia had a beautiful glow, tempered by her father’s often-dismissive treatment. Alex Givens convinced as 12-year-old Andrea, who learns astronomy and physics at Galileo’s knee, and as the adult Andrea who renounces Galileo after his recantation. As Andrea’s mother and Galileo’s housekeeper, Mrs. Sarti, Sarita Ocón charmingly filled the character with admiration and exasperation for her employer. Tristan Parks showed particularly wide range, first as rhyming narrator, then as obsessed elderly cardinal, slinky ballad singer and practical-minded businessman.

The face microphones helped with hearing the dense dialogue more clearly, but some actors needed more precise enunciation. There were also technical problems at times when otherwise clearly-spoken actors were not easily heard. Despite that, the production is highly recommended for being timely and thought-provoking while making a potentially heavy-going script into a heady rush of characters and ideas.

Life of Galileo continues through Sunday, March 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.