” …you’ve been the brightest object in my life – and we work with stars.”Silent Sky, Lauren Gunderson
I was privileged to see the final dress of Silent Sky, this season’s intimate, studio theatre production at the University of West Florida. Before seeing the show, I got to speak with director Marci Duncan. Marci is the Assistant Professor of Acting at UWF and a fellow Stage Mom (you can read all about that here)!
It’s obvious that this production is a favorite of Marci’s; before I could even sit down she was gushing about the show. I quickly fumbled through my bag to grab my pen and paper…
“This is a storytelling piece. An actor’s piece. A character study. That’s what I love most about this production and the cast has done very well with it.”
Silent Sky is a poetic telling of the true story of Henrietta Leavitt (played by Lena Sakalla), the female astronomer who made astronomical discoveries during her time working as a “human computer” at Harvard in 1900. But scientific leaps do not come without significant hardships. Not only does Henri tirelessly map the stars without credit, her relationship with her family – and any possibility of a budding romance – are strained due to her obsessive work ethic, though she would call it “passion – a dedicated desire unmatched by reason.”
This passion is the only way a woman of her time could have pursued a career in science. In fact, Henri spends her dowry in order to kickstart her career at Harvard. Rockstar, much? With every dismissal of her talent, simply for the fact that she is female, Henrietta quippingly bites back, my favorite being “the mind is sexless and so is the sky.”
This production was evocative of a few others that I happen to love: In the beginning is a very Little Women-esque moment between Henrietta and her sister Margaret (played by Sara McQuiggan), in that the two sisters have very different ideas of what a woman should do and be. Additionally, the script is a wonderful melding of art and science, real and make-believe, much like Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Finally, the narrative, the characters, the time-period, and even the set were extremely reminiscent of On the Verge, which was the final production of my undergrad studies at UWF, and one that I hold very dear to my heart.
My own nostalgia aside, this production stands strong on it’s own. Marci was right, this is a character-driven show. The cast did a beautiful job creating distinct, lively, fully-developed characters. My M.O. is to watch little moments that happen in the background while the focus is elsewhere – little gestures or improvisations that otherwise go unnoticed – a sign of strong character development. I was pleased to find these moments throughout the show. It’s like finding Hidden Mickey’s at Disney World…
The cast was small, so it’s difficult to choose, but I’d have to say that “terse and sure” Annie Cannon was my favorite character, played brilliantly by Olivia Wolford. Maybe it was the comedic timing or maybe it was the “Votes for Women” sash she got to wear, but I’m adding Miss Cannon to my list of dream roles. Another fun one (and the character I’d be more likely to play) was Williamina Fleming, hilariously portrayed by Dani Barrie, an extremely talented actor and singer that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in several PenArts productions, and who has graciously volunteered her time with Arrant Knavery. Rounding out the cast, in the only male role (bless his heart), was Noah Peacock as the bumbling yet charming Peter Shaw.
Like many other productions in UWF’s Department of Theatre, this one was designed primarily by students and student alumni, including the set, costumes, wigs, and most notably (in my opinion), the lights, designed by Joshua Heming, junior technical theatre student. “My favorite technical problem was how to create the stars in the blackbox space,” said Marci, “and Josh did a fabulous and beautiful job of solving that problem.”
You must see the fantastic work that these students and Marci have put into Silent Sky. It’s a story that attempts to answer questions as vast as the universe itself: “Who are we, why are we – where are we?!”
The University of West Florida Department of Theatre presents Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson on Feb. 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 16 and 23 at 2:30 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at the Center for Fine and Performing Arts, Building 82 on the Pensacola campus. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.