Silent Sky invites lakecity audiences to consider our place in the universe in both the physical and metaphysical sense with a slow but deep historical drama.
Since the dawn of humanity, people have always been asking questions about ourselves and our place in the world. The brightest among us endeavour to answer at least some of these questions and it was the work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt that answered one of our biggest, namely, where are we in the universe?
The Williams Lake Studio Theatre’s Silent Sky offers audiences both an astronomy and a history lesson as it takes audience members on a journey through the career of Leavitt and who she was, albeit in a fictional historical play. In a time where women had yet to win the right to vote or be considered equal to men, Leavitt by sheer force of will and determination broke new ground in the field of astronomy that fundamentally changed the science forever and that spirit is felt throughout Silent Sky.
From the moment you enter the theatre, a sense of wonder and whimsy is instilled in you by the galaxy of lights that have been festooned throughout the lobby. It invites you early on to step into the galaxy Leavitt devoted her life to understanding and creates a beautiful effect.
This sense of wonder and whimsy is perfectly embodied by Tanis Armstrong in the role of Henrietta Leavitt. From the moment she steps on stage Armstrong brings a sense of wide-eyed curiosity and hopeful energy that is as endearing as her determination is iron cast. Sensible, focused on facts and discovering the mysteries of the universe, Armstrong creates a character easy to root for, even when her obsession with working in the Harvard Observatory as a computer, women tasked with naming the stars, overtakes all other concerns.
As Leavitt ages, Armstrong is able to convincingly portray a worn but matured character who still has her curiosity and drive but has accepted her own limitations. One of the play’s most heartwarming moments, however, comes when the value of Leavitt’s work is realized and recognized by the wider scientific community. A legacy, she realizes, is just unfinished work after all that inspires the next generation.
Armstrong is perfectly balanced out by the fictional amalgamation of Leavitt’s siblings into one sister, Margaret Leavitt played handily by Jessica Hill. Hill and Armstrong have immediate chemistry together onstage as lifelong sisters used to bickering back and forth. While Hill portrays a more sensible, down-to-earth, God-fearing piano player, there is a real warmth and understanding between the two that, while tested, is never truly broken.
Adversity for Armstrong, beyond being looked at for her gender first and mind second, most often comes in the form of the fictional representation of her male coworker Peter Shaw, portrayed endearingly by Neal Matoga. Although his indifference and casual sexism makes for a bad first impression, Matoga is able to craft an endearing character who forms in the light of Armstrong’s passion for her work. Boyish, a tad awkward and a perfect example of a dumb smart person, Matoga’s charm and physicality provides some of the play’s lightest and most sincere moments.
The humour, however, is brought on firmly by the dynamic occurring between real life astronomers and Armstrong’s fellow computers Annie Cannon, Susan Nelson, and Willamina Fleming as played by Sharon Hoffman. Nelson and Hoffman together play a brilliant straight woman and funny woman respectfully whose back and forth is reminiscent of the Muppets Statler and Waldorf.
Nelson turns in a delightful and deliberately stiff performance that matches her character’s rigid, firm sense of work ethic and excellence. However, as the play progresses, a warmer more nurturing side is exposed that mentors Armstrong’s Leavitt when she needs it the most.
Completely opposite of her is Hoffman who clearly delights in bringing her feisty, playful and loud character to life, right down to her slightly hammy Scottish brogue. Whenever she walks upon the stage, laughter is sure to follow, as her good humour and insight help her fellow characters discover what’s really important in the world.
Narratively speaking, while strong, Silent Sky is a bit dialogue-heavy when it comes to technical astronomy jargon. The actors, however, are able to simplify the concepts they discuss but audiences will have to stick with it and pay attention to get the true value out of it.
To that end, the first act feels long and somewhat drawn out near the end while the second act races by and feels much tighter overall. This is helped by scene and costume changes that imply the passage of time, something that can be hard to judge in the first act.
Speaking of costumes, Christa Obergfell did a solid job bringing back the long dresses and shawls of the late 1800s to early 1900s as well as the stiff suits of men that haven’t seemed to change much. Each one reflected the actors’ characters nicely and complimented their performances.
Sheryl-Lynn Lewis, however, has outdone herself on the set which continues the galaxy motif begun in the lobby and extends it across the unique cylindrical stage. Lewis has made profound use of black to imply the night sky and was able to recreate the stars in a glimmering backdrop that surround the round office the computers inhabit throughout the play.
This effect is only enhanced by Jeff Rankin’s fantastic job with designing the lighting of the stage, complementing it with soft yellows, dark blues and white light signifying day. A cue was rarely dropped on his end while Conlan Sprickerhoff and Adam Lyons handled the sound design expertly.
Taken all together, director Kirsten Lyons has been able to craft a beautiful viewing experience that makes the audience think about their own place in this world and indeed this universe of ours. It will be a solid contender for the zone festival, come May when the WLST is hosting it.
Silent Sky’s run begins on March 4 and goes until March 7, March 11 to March 14 and March 18 to March 21, doors open at 7 p.m., showtime 7:30 p.m. sharp with matinees on March 7 and March 14 at 12:30 p.m. sharp. A special talkback night, which will give the audience a chance to ask questions of the actors, will take place on March 12 after the show.
Tickets are on sale now at the Open Book and the WLST’s website for $15 March 4 to 5 and $20 from March 6 onwards.