The shining strength of Dava Sobel’s And the Sun Stood Still — which is currently receiving its world premiere in Boulder — is that, at a time when the sciences have been so muddied by sloppy thinking, willful ignorance and financial pressure, it provides insight into the scientific process and eloquently communicates the sheer beauty of astronomy.
Nicolaus Copernicus is living in the Bishopric of Varmia, in what was then the Kingdom ofPoland, with his housekeeper, Anna Schilling, whom Sobel imagines as a thoughtful, dedicated midwife. The relationship between Copernicus and Schilling is not fully understood now, and it was the subject of much gossip and speculation at the time; in the play, the fanatical local bishop,Johannes Dantiscus, refers to Anna more than once as a harlot. Copernicus has been working on his revolutionary theory that the earth is not the center of the universe, but rather turns while the sun stands still. Aware of the furor, mockery and disruption this finding will arouse in a world where the centrality of the earth is a tenet of faith and the Catholic Church feels itself besieged by Lutheranism, Copernicus is reluctant to publish his work. But then he receives a visit from a brilliant young mathematician, Georg Joachim Rheticus, a Lutheran who teaches at Wittenberg — the very town where Martin Luther hammered his 95 theses to the church door.
Michael Frayn’s extraordinary play, Copenhagen, arose from his curiosity about a mysterious meeting between the scientists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in that city during the height of the Second World War — a meeting whose purpose Frayn was driven to imagine. Eminent science writer Dava Sobel had known of the encounter between Copernicus and Rheticus for a long time — and she also knew its purpose, or at least the outcome: It was Rheticus who persuaded Copernicus to publish On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543 after thirty years of silence. But she was inspired to envision the content and tenor of their discussion. Though well known for her books and articles, Sobel was not a playwright. Still, she created a script on the two men’s work together that served as the centerpiece for her 2012 book A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. On a reading tour that brought her to Boulder, she met Stephen Weitz, artistic director of the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, which eventually workshopped the script. And now, a year later, after all kinds of back-and-forth communication between Sobel and Weitz, the play is fully and entertainingly on its feet.
At its heart — and the most successful element of both the script and the production — are the conversations between Rheticus and Copernicus. We’re all familiar now with Copernicus’s heliocentric theory; what Sobel does is remind us of just how astonishing, exhilarating, infuriating and unsettling it was in its time, a gale of doubt and truth blowing through a deeply established set of ideas about humankind’s place in the universe and relationship to God, ideas that explained not only the movements of the stars, but medicine — and even our individual fortunes. Small wonder that poor Rheticus reels as Copernicus explains that his theory is not abstract and philosophical, but a description of reality. Sobel’s elegant language and profound imagining make the audaciousness and majesty of Copernicus’s thought so clear you can almost feel the earth shifting under your own feet as you watch. And contemplating the fury with which the church opposed this theory, I couldn’t help remembering what Neil Degrasse Tyson toldStephen Colbert about today’s doubters: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
Sobel’s play could use a bigger tech budget than a small, daring company like BETC can muster: I kept thinking the script would have been better served by a less clunky set, more inventive lighting and undistracting costumes. But this is essentially a play of ideas, and those ideas are given clarity and significance by Sam Sandoe as Copernicus’s friend Bishop Tiedemann Giese, Crystal Eisele as Anna, and a lively Bob Buckley as the firebrand Bishop Dantiscus. But it’s Jim Hunt as Copernicus and Benjamin Bonenfant as Rheticus who supply the richness, warmth and humanity that bring the evening to life.