(St. Petersburg, FL) November 23, 2019 – Perseverance is one of the most powerful weapons any pioneer can possess. It doesn’t matter if you are an artist, scientist, entrepreneur, academic, or a person that practices law and politics, a little chutzpah goes a long way. This can be said for astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, whose in-depth, scientific research led to the discovery of over 2,400 variable stars, in addition to other significant accomplishments. Playwright Lauren Gunderson explores Leavitt’s life in “Silent Sky,” which makes its Tampa area debut at American Stage. Courtesy of the talented actors and visionary direction of Kristin Clippard, “Silent Sky” is an amazing sight to see.
It is the early 1900s, and Henrietta Leavitt (Susan Maris) is hired by famed astronomer Charles Pickering to chart and record the stars whose images are captured by Harvard College Observatory’s gigantic telescope. She and her team, composed of the wise Williamina Fleming (Karel K. Wright) and feisty Annie Cannon (Vickie Daignault), are extremely good at their jobs as they are constantly under the watchful eye of Pickering’s star pupil, Peter (Benjamin T. Ismail). But Leavitt has the potential to discover more with her research, and she faces huge challenges in balancing her work and her family life, especially her beloved sister, Margaret (Kate Berg, in a heartfelt and heartbreaking performance).
As she perfectly illustrated in American Stage’s “Miss Bennett: Christmas at the Pemberly” (which swept the 2019 Theater Tampa Bay Awards), Gunderson is a true master in creating thought-out, three-dimensional characters and realistic period dialogue that transports the audience to that moment in history. She especially does a fantastic job with the scientific jargon that is spoken by these characters, not only making it sound natural, but also understandable. What makes this story special is that it appeals to both men and women when it comes to the power of perseverance, to fight those insurmountable odds in order to establish one’s legacy. In lesser hands, the story could have been another angry male-bashing diatribe where the male characters might as well be mustache-twisting villains, a trend which, sadly, has been occurring way too often in 21st century theatre, television, and especially the cinema. And this is evident with Peter, an uptight academic whose social awkwardness is a suitable and even poignant love interest for the socially awkward Leavitt. Ismail nicely balances his character’s benign outdated chauvinism with a gentle compassion.
However, Ismail’s Peter would be incomplete without a talented artist to capture Leavitt’s passion, charm, and scientific acumen. And Maris beautifully combines all of these components, developing a multifaceted heroine that touches the hearts of any individual who strives to make their dreams into a reality. She also illustrates her character’s journey where her selfish ambition transforms into eye-opening humility and devotion to her family, revealing to her that it is possible to balance a personal and professional life. When you add Maris’s friendly chemistry with Wright’s hilarious Williamina and Daignault’s fiery Annie, Leavitt’s transformation into a groundbreaking pioneer becomes complete.
Adding to these sublime performances is the creative team behind the scenes. Set designer Steve K. Mitchell and Projection Designer Jerid Fox seem to distill all the incredible imagery from Gunderson’s text into a set where the foreground is home to the observatory’s library and a deck on an ocean liner, and in the back are expansive projections of the constellations that Leavitt and her friends discover. Sitting on the peak of this tower of creativity is Director Kristin Clippard, whose artistry and vision brings all these imaginative ingredients together, resulting in a magical theatrical mixture that is called “Silent Sky.”
Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, and playwright.
Silent Sky runs from Nov. 10 through Dec. 22, 2019
163 3rd St N.
St. Petersburg, FL 33701