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'Defying Gravity' play set at Minnesota West

WORTHINGTON -- On the surface, Minnesota West Community and Technical College's "Defying Gravity" focuses on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, but the play's theme is literally uplifting -- people soaring to the heavens and reaching beyond their limitations.

"It talks about love and moving on, it talks about loss, old age, religion and art -- there's something for everyone," said Eric Parrish, director, emphasizing the play's positive approach and inspiring message.

Parrish decided to produce "Defying Gravity" in 2011 -- the 25th year after the Challenger tragedy and also the year the U.S. space shuttle program will be retired.

"When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut, so I've always had this fascination with space," Parrish said. "('Defying Gravity') has always been on my list as I wanted to do it some day."

The play presents a series of scenes leading up to and following the Challenger's disintegration, through the eyes of seven characters.

The audience sees the Teacher (Lea Wilmes), based loosely on Christa McAuliffe, interact with her students and her young daughter, Elizabeth (Kendra Kleinwolterink), who feels guilty and betrayed when her mother dies in the shuttle.

NASA mechanic C.B. (Aaron Pool) blames himself for the tragedy, and bartender Donna (Nyiebol Gew) is pestered by journalists looking for insight into the astronauts' last days.

Meanwhile, retired couple Betty (Diane Graber) and Ed (John Widboom) are driving a Winnebago to Florida to watch the shuttle take off. The two serve as the play's comedy relief.

Drawing the narrative threads together is French impressionist Claude Monet (Michael Benitez), whose aspirations to defy gravity with art echo the Teacher's.

"It's a fantasy -- it's not a comedy or a drama," Parrish said.

One of Parrish's major challenges in the production has been literally defying gravity -- trying to create zero-gravity on stage without using any ropes or harnesses proved difficult.

"It's all about establishing this idea of fantasy. We're doing some things that will hopefully establish the idea of weightlessness," Parrish said.

Auditions for the play were in December, with a few parts being cast at that time. Graber, former provost at Minnesota West, once told Parrish she would like to participate in a play once she retired, so he recruited her to play retiree Betty. Widboom sings in Parrish's church choir. The cast has been rehearsing since January.

Performances of "Defying Gravity" will begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Minnesota West. Tickets are available at the door.