BWW Review: SILENT SKY at American Stage A Cosmic And Timeless Love Story, Where Powerful Women Take A Stance
An old fashioned hearing aid and a strong willed woman at its helm with dreams as big as the universe she wishes to discover is one of many centralized themes presented in this brilliant staging of Lauren Gunderson's Silent Sky at American Stage Theatre. At the center of the stage two desk faced by numerous books on shelves in a workspace for women at Harvard University, where women are paid a mere .25 cents on the hour to "compute" and manually log the patterns of stars in the galaxy given on glass plates by their male counterparts. At this point in Harvard's history women were not allowed to work alongside the men no matter their prior education or status. Men had their place, and women had theirs and men liked to make sure the women knew their place in the hierarchy. It was one women's dream to be credited amongst the likes of men in the Astrology department, and through sheer Will Power she set out to prove just that.
Leaving everything at home, family, and all she knew of life on a farm Henrietta Leavitt set off to Harvard to become an Astrologist. Eager to begin she encounters an Assistant to Dr. Pickering, and through numerous awkward attempts, learns of her new position at Harvard. Susan Maris dons the old fashioned hearing aid with poise and grace and fills the shoes of Henrietta's strong presence and tells her story with the upmost candor. From the moment her story began my eyes were fixated on every nuance. Susan Maris is exceptional in the role of Henrietta, and much like Jo in Little Women her plight is one the audience clings to and we are here for every word. You felt every ache in her heart, every disdain and fight in her being as she tried to prove herself worthy, a tour-de force performance for this actress and one I will remember for some time to come. Kate Berg plays Henrietta's younger sister Margaret and does so with such grace and elegance. Her sense of humor and love for her sister shines through in every line. At the heart of her character Margaret Leavitt is fully devoted to her family so much that when Henrietta fails to write for the longest time, you can relate on a personal level with her lost contact, and it makes your heart ache for her even more. I saw many a resemblance to Rachael McAdams in her, and she was definitely a delight.
Harvard has its share of priceless characters that ebb and flow throughout Henrietta's life. Annie Cannon played by Vickie Daignault is a no-nonsense type of gal and is staunch and brunt to the point. There is a point in the second act where you actually connect with her on a personal level, and it truly shines. Annie is a character you love to hate, but when she opens up and lets her guard down the cool façade melts away. Harkening to the work of Meryl Streep she has a cool exterior and a heart of gold and its Vickie's performance as Annie that packs a wallop and keeps everyone on their toes, and it truly is an outstanding performance from the start. Williamina Fleming is the comic relief needed in this beautiful story, the Scottish-Accent to top it all off was wonderful. Karel K. Wright does a beautiful job showing true heart in Williamina, but also provides us a good hearty belly laugh in which my sides were aching at intermission. The final cog in the wheel of the story of Henrietta is that of Peter Shaw played brilliantly by Benjamin T. Ismail. From first encounter Shaw is very unlikeable almost arrogant, but in the same way he's nerdy and aloof. He meets Henrietta and immediately finds an attraction in her, starts bumping into everything and cannot seem to get his words correct. In his heart he truly loves Henrietta, but there is an almost forbidden quality to this love that makes it ever more endearing. Harkening to the likes of David Hyde Pearce in Frasier as the ever aloof Niles Crane, Benjamin's Peter Shaw is the same type of man. Incredible work by Benjamin, and exceptional timing made him a true joy to watch on stage.
Director Kristin Clippard has done a fine job with this beautiful work. The company does an outstanding job getting us to feel for every character not only as individuals, but also as a cohesive unit. The lighting design was truly exceptional and breathtaking to witness. It helped set the tone for the show, and beautifully moved us along the journey. The use of projections for the different areas albeit the church or the sea set a nice mood over the scene and really helped us picture the moment being conveyed. However with all things there are a few things I could have seen happen differently. The set was beautifully dressed, and lent itself well to telling the story, but the use of the upper platform was almost wasted space. I understand the intention, but might it have been utilized in a different way? Also this might be the writing, or it might be a directing choice, but when the letters were being read...the salutation at the end almost overlapped with the previous and vice-a-versa. It made it difficult to follow unless you were truly focused on the words being delivered. One final thing, was the placement of "Harvard" in relation to the farm was almost too close for comfort. There were times when Henrietta would be at the farm and talking about things at Harvard such as her work and move to her desk and shuffle about, even though she was supposed to be nowhere near Harvard. Spacing was an issue here and I wonder if there could be a better way to utilize the space given or maybe prop placement, as for in that instance it took me out of the moment. All in all the company did a fantastic job with this production minus the few logistical things which could be overlooked, but in that point of reference took me away from the story a few times.
Full of humor, wit, romance, and cosmos Silent Sky at American Stage is a tour-de- force that put a wonderful cap on the Holiday weekend. Exceptionally acted, directed, and overall a strong piece to witness American Stage got this one right. The final moment in the show had everyone in the audience on their feet. Do your best not to miss this out of this world production. American Dreamscape is the plight/theme of the season and American Stage lends well to that theme with this stirring and moving true-story about a woman who says times up and women deserve the same privileges as men as she sets out to take the Bull by the horns. Do yourself a favor when you see this piece, as you walk back to your car, take a moment and look up at the sky, for what you find the sky above could hold the key to something greater and more imaginative than ever. Silent Sky runs now through December 22, 2019 at the Raymond James Theatre in St Petersburg, and tickets can be purchased by visiting americanstage.org.
Photo Credit: American Stage