Bertolt Brecht’s take on Galileo’s life, like just about everything he wrote, reflects the profound social shifts that set Europe on its ear in the interwar and World War II years. The playwright’s Marxist bent, which found more didactic voice in works like The Threepenny Opera, gives way in Life of Galileo to a more measured socialist philosophy. And in Galileo, Brecht acknowledged that oppression has roots not just in the actions of governments and potentates, but in the bad decisions and evil actions—sometimes even in the well-intentioned mistakes—of individuals. It’s a notion that finds expression to varying degrees in Mother Courage and Her Children and The Caucasian Chalk Circle as well, but in Galileo, perhaps, Brecht articulated the idea most humanely.

That’s partly because Brecht, in rewriting the play to reflect his horror at what seemed to him the end result of unfettered, irresponsible scientific inquiry—the atomic bomb—seemed to acknowledge that maybe his early ideas about monolithic entities and heroic individuals were a little naive.

“Where will it end if all these people, weak in the flesh and inclined to excess, come to rely on their own reason?” asks the frighteningly pragmatic Cardinal Inquisitor in this rare revival at Washington Shakespeare Company. As the lights come up on John D. Antone’s handsome set—celestially inspired circles within circles, embraced by broad, graceful arcs—the comforting sound of chant gives way to a hollow, spacey minor melody, and by the time that ruthlessly political cardinal poses his contemptuous question, the aptness of Charlene Lockwood and William Hanff’s musical metaphor becomes clear. The heliocentric heresies of a world-renowned astronomer have begun to percolate through the public consciousness of Renaissance Italy, the peasantry wonders if the social order that keeps it down on the farm isn’t a man-made construct rather than a divine ordination, and even the man in St. Peter’s chair can’t help but feel the earth move under his shoes.

And with good reason: The Church, as personified by that cardinal, is still as much a temporal authority as a spiritual one, and its view of its people as sheep is a notion less benevolent and protective than blatantly patriarchal. With the advent of Galileo Galilei’s ideas about the structure of the universe, the sheep are beginning to realize they’ve been fleeced.

Brecht’s hero (who’s also to some extent his villain) is an understandably human character, a seeker and a stumbler as selfish as he is idealistic, a man whose stubborn intellectual arrogance is balanced by the unfeigned glee that seizes him when a new observation leads him to a new idea. In Washington Shakespeare Company’s production, Jim Zidar makes Galileo a likable red-haired glutton, a blustery figure whose scientific agility is matched only by his domestic incompetence.

Zidar, who’s turning into a reliably assured performer, is supported here by a handful of colleagues who do similarly solid work: Waleed Zuaiter as a passionately curious if occasionally overemotional craftsman, Angel Torres as that smooth, sinister Cardinal Inquisitor, Christopher Janson as the conflicted Pope Urban VIII, Terry Gibson as an apoplectic Venetian bureaucrat, and especially the estimable Andy Rapoport, whose subtle and sympathetic performance unearths a compelling subplot in the divided loyalties of an earnest, wide-eyed scientist-monk. Suzanne Richard, switching hats all evening as a papal astronomer, a Medici grand duke, and a ballad singer rhyming about reason’s challenge to religion, again proves herself a practitioner of fearlessly smart stagecraft.

But Life of Galileo is a sprawling play swarming with characters—60 or so—and even with performers constantly doubling and tripling roles, WSC finds itself fielding a cast of 17, unless I miss my count.

And Brecht doesn’t make things easy: Even in a play populated by relatively sympathetic characters, his commitment to keeping the audience at a distance—forcing it to intellectualize rather than internalize the situations playing out onstage—means heavy going for a cast that first acts an idea, then argues it, then recaps the entire business in a masque at Carnival time. So while Christopher Henley and Jim Stone’s production is a bold thing, it’s a bit messy whenever it’s not focused on the events and people at the very center. Jeffrey Johnson, for instance, makes quite an impression as Galileo’s young protege Andrea, but his performance flattens and goes occasionally strident once the character has grown to manhood; Robin Ervin plays to stage stereotypes of the domestic servant as Andrea’s housekeeper mother, and Eric Sutton goes painfully over the top as Ludovico, suitor to Galileo’s daughter.

Henley and Stone are by no means stylistic purists—they give their cast more leeway to court the audience than Brecht probably would have approved of—but not everyone in their cast is capable of winning the audience over. Great and terrible things happen in Galileo—a man learns the universe’s secrets and is forced to disavow the knowledge, a spiritual man finds his faith tested by the politics of his church, and science itself is challenged to answer whether it serves itself only or also the good of mankind—and we watch, wondering why we don’t care all that much. Part of the blame is Brecht’s, of course, but WSC will have to shoulder the portion of it that comes from reaching too far.CP