Nonprofit theaters love to contemplate “plays about science,” a genre with an aura of timely social relevance. The Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht’s didactic 1943 drama about 17th-century Italian scholar Galileo Galilei (James Caulfield), doesn’t fit the bill neatly. Although the title character invents the telescope and conceives the Earth’s true orbital path, Brecht generally trains his focus on political questions rather than scientific matters—showing a dissident thinker’s conflict with religious authorities, and how those in power fear and suppress the truth.
Unfortunately, Milk Can Theatre’s director, Julie Fei-Fan Balzer, looks at Brecht through the wrong end of this telescope. With the exception of a carnival-like street scene, the young ensemble here approaches the play as if it were standard psychological realism, without uncovering the piece’s political dynamics or drawing from the Brechtian stagecraft that could reveal them. The original title underlines its intended historical sweep; here, the title has been shortened simply to Galileo—a choice substituting one man’s personal drama for the shape of history. It’s a small, but telling, detail: Since Brecht has already deliberately made all the character psychology transparent, the result is uninflected story theater not helped by declamatory performances. Still, Brecht’s themes persist, and the play might somehow defy science to live forever.