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BWW Review: SILENT SKY - A Little Slice of Heaven


SILENT SKY is a fictional piece based on the very real and brilliant astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. Leavitt was a Radcliffe educated scientist who, while employed at Harvard supporting her male counterparts, discovered in the early 20th century how to interpret pulsing stars in order to measure distance in space. Leavitt served as one of Harvard astronomer Edward Charles Pickering's "computers" or, as they were known around campus, "Pickering's Harem." Hired to measure and catalog the brightness of stars, Leavitt made her discovery in her spare time by measuring 1,777 cepheid variables (stars) recorded on photographic plates. In other words, thanks to Henrietta Leavitt, we know our place in the Galaxy. And we know our galaxy's place in the Universe.

In this sense, SILENT SKY is a biographical work. But SILENT SKY is also a diverse story about women and their place in the world at the turn of the century. It's about philosophy and passion and religion and love and awkward romance. Pair the excellence of this production with the rare experience of not one but four strong women characters in the usual cornucopia of male dominated plays, and SILENT SKY rises above the rest to create a unique little slice of heaven right here in Austin.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson spent some time sharing her thoughts on the play with Austin Playhouse just last week in an interview that sheds even more significant light on the all too sparse fare for women in theatre. Gunderson points out, "This (play) ... sends a message across time to us to say that women aren't asking for special treatment, we are showing how special we already are and always have been. We're not asking anyone to let us participate, we are exclaiming that we have participated in discoveries, breakthroughs and wild achievement all along. I also intend for the play to show more than one kind of heroine. Women characters are often (even if they are the play's protagonist) surrounded by men. This play reverses that by making the male character the rarity. This creates a diverse sisterhood that will give every audience member (male or female) someone to root for."

So Henrietta (Molly Karrasch) leaves her family, and in particular, her beloved sister Margaret (Claire Grasso) to work in the male driven observatory at Harvard, where she develops not just a theory about measuring the stars, but a strong and loving sisterhood with fellow female scientists Annie Cannon (Babs George) and Williamina Fleming (Cyndi Williams.) Playwright Lauren Gunderson includes a love interest in the story with Peter Shaw (Samuel Knowlton), who, despite a disastrous but adorable first impression, manages to almost woo Henrietta beyond the passion she has for her work.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson has provided a funny, moving, and strong script with SILENT SKY, and the cast beautifully embodies the personalities of these scientists with grit and joy. Director Lara Toner Haddock cast wisely, and it showed in the skill and collaboration of the cast on opening night. Molly Karrusch gives Henrietta an adorable enthusiasm without sacrificing the strength of her conviction as a woman in a man's world. Claire Grasso does a wonderful job of portraying Henrietta's sister Margaret. In the hands of lesser talent, this character could be played and perceived by a 21st century audience as weak. However, Grasso gives her a simultaneous bravado and charm that might convert even the most stubborn feminist. Babs George and Cyndi Williams humanize Annie and Willamina when in less skilled hands, these characters could become nothing more than amusing sidekicks to Henrietta. And rounding out the cast, Gunderson gives us the only man in the play, Peter Shaw, Pickering's assistant. He's bumbling and flighty and Knowlton treads beautifully on the boundaries of his Shaw, never once moving into caricature.

Mike Toner's set is simple and unassuming, and on opening night, there was a technical difficulty with the projector in Act I, that, even in its importance in a play about the stars, was barely missed for the skill and talent on the stage. Diana Huckaby provides beautiful costuming and director Lara Toner Haddock's influence seemed invisible in the best way possible - in the sense that it's very hard to tell where her work ends and the actors begin. And kudos to Austin Playhouse, for ensuring a woman directed a play about women.

Here in Austin we have our share of great theatre companies that are committed to the noble art of providing us with Live Theatre. We have a staggering array of choices to keep us entertained on any given night. Some of this theatre is good, some great, some bad, some really, really, horrible. Among these theatre companies, many are of professional caliber, and even from among those that are professional, the quality can be uneven. However, on rare occasions, a production comes along that feels magical. SILENT SKY is one of those productions. It's a lovely show, and if it was not meaningful for the ensemble engaged in its production, it never showed. Well done Austin Playhouse. Well done Lauren Gunderson.

by Lauren Gunderson
directed by Lara Toner Haddock
Austin Playhouse
September 23 - October 17
Tickets $15-$30

Running Time: 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission

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From This Author Joni Lorraine