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Silent Sky
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Maggie Ryan
Insight Theatre Company
October 19, 2018

silentskyinsight2

Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Elizabeth Townsend, Gwendolyn Wotawa, Chrissy Steele Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

 

Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky is a popular play, apparently. It has already been performed in St. Louis in an excellent production by another theatre company earlier this year, and it seems to be a favorite of various theatre companies across the country. Now, it’s onstage at the Kranzberg Arts Center in a heartwarming, superbly staged and ideally cast production by Insight Theatre Company.

The show tells the story of pioneering women in the field of astronomy, and particularly of Henrietta Leavitt (Gwendolyn Wotawa), who takes a job as a “computer” recording data at Harvard in the late 1890s and eventually makes a discovery that has far-reaching influence on the field of astronomy. She also gets to know her co-workers, fellow computers Williamina Fleming (Chrissy Steele) and Annie Cannon (Elizabeth Townsend), forming a strong bond over the years as the three do their jobs and struggle for recognition in a male-dominated field. The story also highlights Leavitt’s relationship with her sister Margaret (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who in many ways is the opposite of Henrietta, even though they have a close bond. While Henrietta dreams of the stars and focuses on her career, the musically gifted Margaret stays home, marries and has children, encouraging Henrietta in her work but still hoping she will come visit her and their minister father more often. Although there is also a subplot involving a romantic attachment to another co-worker, Peter Shaw (Alex Freeman), the play continually makes the point that, for Henrietta, her true love is her work. The close female friendships and bond with her sister are important, as well, but ultimately, she focuses on the stars and wants to leave a legacy for those who follow after her. It’s a strong script, with well-defined characters and relationships, with an overarching theme of persistence in going after one’s goals and defying expectations.

The casting here is especially strong, with the relationship between Henrietta and Margaret a dramatic highlight, as Wotawa and Theby-Quinn give their characters a great deal of credibility. Both give thoughtful, energetic portrayals, with Theby-Quinn’s obvious musical ability on display as she plays and sings hymns and classical style music on the piano. Wotawa’s Leavitt is determined, persistent, and relatable, as well. In addition, Townsend as the tough, iconoclastic Annie and Steele as the encouraging, also determined Williamina are also excellent, as is Freeman as the initially incredulous but increasing supportive Shaw, and his scenes with Wotawa are especially strong. With such a small cast, ensemble chemistry is especially important, and this production has that, bringing the characters to life in relatable, believable relationships and motivations.

The small black box space at the Kranzberg is impressively transformed into a dynamic field of stars through the excellent set design by Constance Vale. Rob Lippert’s lighting is highly effective as well in helping achieve a starry effect. There’s also impressive work from sound designer James Blanton and costume designer Julian King, who outfits the cast in period-appropriate costumes that are well-suited to the characters’ personalities. The sense of time and place, as well as the passage of time, is well communicated here, as the story covers several decades in the characters’ lives.

As popular as this play is, and as recently as it has been performed in St. Louis, you may be wondering why you would need to see this production if you’ve seen it before. My answer to that question is this–excellence. It’s a well-told tale impressively portrayed, with especially strong performances by a standout cast. Even if you’ve seen this play before, this production is impressive in its own right. It’s a small cast show with a big scope, highlighting an important historical figure who deserves recognition, and boasting a truly wonderful cast. Go see it!

Gwendolyn Wotawa, Alex Freeman Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Silent Sky at the Kranzberg Arts Center until November 4, 2018.

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Silent Sky
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
February 10, 2018

Michelle Hand, Jamie PItt, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Henrietta Leavitt isn’t exactly a household name, but her contributions to astronomy are important still. In Silent Sky, the latest production from West End Players Guild, playwright Lauren Gunderson shines a light on Leavitt and her colleagues and the struggles of women in the male-dominated field of astronomy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Led by a strong cast and with some impressive visual elements, this is an illuminating production.

The story follows Leavitt (Rachel Tibbetts) as she moves from rural Wisconsin to take a job as a “computer” at Harvard, alongside fellow computers Annie Cannon (Jamie Pitt) and Williamina Fleming (Michelle Hand). Leavitt leaves her family, including sister Margaret (Colleen Backer), with whom she is close but whose life’s ambition is vastly different than her own. While Margaret stays home, marries, and has children while playing music in her church, Henrietta, along with her colleagues, strives to gain recognition for her work and engages in a flirtation with Peter Shaw (Graham Emmons), the assistant to the astronomy professor for whom Henrietta works. While Peter is initially skeptical of Henrietta’s abilities, he grows to admire her, as she also gains the admiration of her coworkers, and she becomes engrossed in a project that eventually leads to a remarkable breakthrough in astronomy, and in the very perception of the universe, While Henrietta’s closest relationships with people are highlighted, it’s also made clear that to her, her most important relationship is with her work. It’s an insightful, imaginitive look at figures from history that might not be household names, but whose stories are important to remember. It’s also a somewhat jarring depiction of views about women in science in the not-too-distant past.

The roles are cast well, from Tibbetts’s intrepid, inquisitive, determined Henrietta to Emmons’s sincere but often bewildered Peter, and the excellent chemistry these two display, to Backer’s loyal but exasperated Margaret, who also has excellent rapport with Tibbetts in their scenes together. There are also memorable performances from Hand as the witty Scottish former housekeeper Williamina, and Pitt as the sometimes brash, activist Annie. There’s a great sense of chemistry among all the players, in fact, and an overall spirit of boldness, wonder and passion for discovery that underlies the whole story.

Visually, this show is a stunner, with excellent lighting designed by Nathan Schroeder and clever video designs by Ben Lewis and sound design by director Ellie Schwetye, whose staging is inventive and dynamic, as well. Tracy Newcomb’s costumes are detailed and period-appropriate, as well. The overall sense of time and place, as well as the overall atmosphere of wonder and exploration, are evoked well in the technical elements as well as in the performances.

This play is about astronomy, but it does an excellent job of portraying the subject with passion and even a sense of poetry. The dedication to learning more and more about the universe is clearly portrayed in the story of Henrietta and her colleagues. These women were true pioneers, and this play brings their story to life in a somewhat stylized way, but also in a way that inspires. Silent Sky is the title, but there’s a lot to be said here, and West End Players Guild’s production says it well.

Colleen Backer, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Silent Sky at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 18, 2018.

 

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