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REVIEW - Silent Sky, 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa

thumb_2_Jessica Headington-600.jpg

REVIEW - Silent Sky, 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa

Moving Tribute to Unheralded Genius

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo, Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

If a woman can do it, how hard can it be? 

That's the thinking that has plagued womankind from the very beginning of human enterprise. This was especially true in the STEAM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math), but women and girls are finally, at long last, making some progress.

Bay Area playwright Lauren Gunderson has made a point of recognizing the efforts of women in science. As one of the most produced playwrights in the U.S. and winner of numerous awards for her work, she has written a number of plays on this topic including “Emilie” and “Dr Wonderful and Her Dog!”. Her play about 19th-Century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, “Silent Sky”, is being presented this month at 6th Street Playhouse's black-box Studio Theater in conjunction with their Star Seekers contest. Middle-school students from throughout Sonoma county were invited to submit artwork inspired by women in STEAM. Their projects were judged and the top three finalists were each awarded $1000, and seven others received honorable mention. Their works will be on display in the lobby of the Studio Theatre for the month of April. 

“Silent Sky” is Gunderson's tribute to a woman whose work went almost entirely unrecognized for nearly a century. It was Henrietta Leavitt's ground-breaking discovery, after years of laboring in the shadows, that allowed her, and later other astronomers, to calculate the distance of stars from Earth. The play tells the story of Leavitt's personal struggles against gender discrimination, loneliness and hearing loss. We see her interactions with colleagues and family, never in her lifetime getting the recognition she deserved. She uses her dowry money to journey to Harvard Observatory for their astronomy research program. There she joins a group of grossly underpaid women used as “human computers” to help classify stars. This only brings her more frustration, even as she questions our place in the universe. Her head is in the heavens, her feet firmly planted on Earth.

(From left) Laura Davies, Devin McConnell, Juliet Noonan, Jessica Headington (seated), Maureen Studer

The ensemble cast is nearly flawless. Jessica Headington gives a blazingly intense and memorable performance as Leavitt. Laura Davies as Williamina Fleming and Maureen Studer as Annie Cannon deliver vivid characterizations. Leavitt's love interest Peter Shaw, a colleague at the Observatory, appears to be the only fictional character in the play. Devin McConnell as the shy, socially awkward Shaw lends a bit of dramatic (and romantic) tension. Also noteworthy is the sincere and heartfelt performance by Juliet Noonan as Leavitt's sister Margie. For most of the play she is only seen in reference to letters shared by the two sisters, who have a nice chemistry between them.

Devin McConnell, Jessica Headington

The Henrietta Leavitt in “Silent Sky” seems to be looking for love as well as scientific achievement. Needing romance and marriage to find fulfillment in life was a stereotypically feminine pastime of the day. The play as written has some gaps in character development, leaving much to the director and cast to fill in, and they rise to the challenge. The production is beautifully staged by director Lennie Dean. She makes good use of spotlights, one on each of the sisters during their poignant correspondence, and also during Leavitt's long-distance flights of fancy. Hair, makeup and costume design by Jeanine Gray nicely compliments the production, making effective transitions from the late 19th to early 20th Century styles. Lighting by April George is truly wonderful, with dozens of individual tiny lights hanging from the ceiling to represent stars and a dazzling display at the end. 

With talent and imagination, this play is gracefully done by cast and crew at 6th Street, and for those whose curiosity takes them to the stars, it's well worth seeing.

Now through April 17, 2016

8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays 

Tickets: $10 to $25

Studio Theater at 6th Street Playhouse
52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa 

707-523-4185 ext 1

Theater Review by Greg and Suzanne Angeo