The conflict in Galileo is iconic:  freedom of ideas vs. censorship.  Brecht peppers his play and his character of Galileo (1564-1642 ) with some Marxist views which are anachronistic but the play triggers thought and thrills one at the power of human intellect.

Everybody’s having a good time looking through the telescope Galileo has recently perfected, and figuring out its benefits and fiscal profits.  Galileo, short of money, wouldn’t mind reaping some profit, too, but fundamentally he’s peering into his telescope in his quest for truth, recording his observations, and thinking about them.  His observations and calculations reveal to him that the earth rotates around the sun, not the other way around.

Galileo understands, of course, that his heliocentric view runs directly counter to Catholic dogma in which Man and his earth are at the center of God’s creation, but, driven by the passion to know, excited and even arrogant in the power of his discoveries, he seems unworried that the Church, through its powerful enforcement arm, the Inquisition, will censor his ideas or threaten his personal safety.

In one of the great scenes in theater, Cardinal Barberini, Galileo’s old friend, is transformed from an ordinary man into The Pope as he stands, center stage, and is dressed, with the aid of an advisor, into full papal regalia, buttoned from neck to hem into to his long gown, taking up the mitre, until, crowned by the tiara, his identity becomes merged fully with the Church.  And, having resisted to this point, he now accedes to his advisor’s insistence that Galileo’s heresy must be stopped, and he releases Galileo to the Inquisition.

It’s enough just to see the Inquisition’s horrific instruments of torture — Galileo recants.   Recant – it’s worth pausing to think about what it means.   Driven by fear, Galileo is forced to state publicly that what he knows to be the truth is not the truth.

His “unheroic” recantation disillusions some of his followers.  But they weren’t shown the instruments of torture.  Among the disappointed, Galileo’s servant says “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.”  “No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” Galileo answers.  Brecht’s Galileo is as much a man of the flesh as of the intellect, one of the keen strengths of the play.

His geocentric view now branded a heresy, Galileo spends the rest of his life under house arrest, but he continues his scientific studies — examining sunspots by peering through his telescope to the point where he blinds himself.  His followers smuggle the results of his investigations beyond the borders of Italy and to the larger world.  Brecht believed that revolutionary ideas are ultimately unstoppable:  in this instance he was right.

F.. Murray Abraham portrays Galileo with a gruffness that suggests a weary experience with the world, but misses the inner excitement and inspiration of his life as a scientist.  Robert Dorfman conveys exquisitely the gentle humor of Brecht’s Pope, thoughtful, ironic, amused even at himself, until he takes on the rigidity of high position.  Amanda Quaid as Galileo’s daughter effectively moves from joyous young love to its disappointment, to a nunnish devotion to her aging father, representing the fallout of the effects of Galileo’s scientific drive on those he loves.

The set is so evocative one seems to hear the music of the spheres.  Suspended globes of different sizes in bluish tones conjure up the solar system, their appealingly rough surfaces referring to Gallileo’s key — and religiously controversial — observation that the moon isn’t perfectly smooth but has mountains.  At times a round projection suggests a view through a telescope — here I think this production missed a bet:  instead of generic views of starry skies, etc., they would have done well to show what Galileo with the magnification available actually saw when he put his eye to the lens, including the way, over time, things moved.

This is a play that I think is inportant to know, and here’s your chance to see it well produced and performed.  Earlier, Classic Stage presented a staged reading of Galileo, including the play’s two possible endings, one “hopeful,” one “hopeless.”  The reading included both endings:  here we have one.

Galileo plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through March 18, 2012.