OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) – Someone from Wisconsin found a way to measure the universe.
A playwright found a way to tell that story – science galore – in human terms.
That’s worth doing up big, which University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre does in its production of Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky.”
The “show” takes up the entire sweeping stage of the Theatre Arts Center, including the front lip. The stage floor is a map of the sky. Features of early 20th-century architecture speak in the framework of a building, spiral staircase and all.
Women in the cast are dressed as in the day – somewhat confined. Women of the day were often confined with what they could do with their gifts. The costuming subtly tells that.
Much is laid out physically and visually for the student cast to step into to tell a remarkable story. And the cast is “on” with the skilled guidance of director Merlaine Angwall, now emeritus.
Side factor: UW-Oshkosh Theatre has a tradition of dramaturgy – fleshing out a production – with informational displays in the theater building. For “Silent Sky,” four insets in the two side hallways include the play synopsis along with background on the science of the era and Henrietta Leavitt and her colleagues at the Harvard Observatory. In the lobby is another display with a telescope and a skyscape as a clear-plastic globe.
The performance moves in sure strides, though a Scottish brogue for one of the characters is avoided.
As Henrietta Leavitt, Ali Basham presents an effervescent personality swept into discoveries to be found in the sky by way of painfully methodical means.
Around Henrietta are Annie Cannon (Alyssa Wodack) and Williamina Fleming (Sydney Pomrening), part of the flinty “computer” team of women at the observatory; Peter Shaw (Jordan Whitrock), the women’s keeper in their scientific toils and Henrietta’s glimmer of a love life; and, back home, Margaret Leavitt (Bree Gens), Henrietta’s duty-bound sister.
Ancillary elements abound that the players flesh out carefully.
+ Family. Henrietta has sacrificed hers for pursuit of science, leaving Margaret to hold the fort in caring for their father, a minister.
+ Emergent women’s rights. Annie is an eager suffragette, righteously and energetically delivered. Williamina is around to give Peter what-for for a freight car full of male missteps.
+ Philosophy. Henrietta and Margaret are different in their views of what “heaven” means. Margaret’s has a God; Henrietta’s has stars, endless stars. Henrietta waxes about humankind’s exact place as she asks, “Where are we?” “In Wisconsin,” Margaret says. Frustrated, Henrietta huffs and specifies her question in what she means: “In the universe.” To Margaret, that’s simply, “Still Wisconsin.”
+ Music. The beloved hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” is woven into the fabric of the play, as a song to sing and as to be heard in segues. Margaret also performs one of her compositions on piano. Music leads to Henrietta’s ah-ha! moment – mathematics, the universe and music having structure.
+ Science. There’s a lot. Phraseology of astronomy pops up regularly as the “computer” women and Peter speak of the work at hand and its relationship to Albert Einstein’s new Theory of Relativity along with leading astronomers’ theories. The name Hubble is quite familiar today.
+ Academia. The play is snippy about the barriers that kept the women “computers,” the doers, in their place and the male academicians distant.
+ Human attraction. The Peter-Henrietta magnetism adds entertainment value. As Peter, Jordan Whitrock plays up bungling shyness as Peter tries to catch the attention of ever-busy Henrietta. The budding relationship takes many a nervous year – for the author to keep Peter in the picture as a connection to the heart and head (wrong-headed in Peter’s case).
The cast has a lot to work with, and the players’ interest with the many facets of the play is a presence. As Henrietta, Ali Basham fuels the dynamics.
This is the fifth production I’ve seen of “Silent Sky” in Northeastern Wisconsin – all different, all imaginative and all engaging. Each actor portraying Henrietta has been luminous, inspired by the specialness of what Henrietta did and how Lauren Gunderson brings that out.
Running time: One hour, 38 minutes
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. March 11-12 and 2 p.m. March 13
Creative: Playwright – Lauren Gunderson; director – Merlaine Angwell; costume designer – Zane Kealey; lighting and sound design – Mark Spitzer; scenic design – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; technical director – Mark Spitzer; production stage manager – Kyle Klein; production assistant stage manager – Aaron Stone; props – Leeann Hershey
Henrietta Leavitt – Ali Basham
Margaret Leavitt – Bree Gens
Peter Shaw – Jordan Whitrock
Annie Cannon – Alyssa Wodack
Williamina Fleming – Sydney Pomrening
NEXT: “She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen, April 28-30, May 6-8.
THE VENUE: The 498-seat Theatre Arts Center, formerly Fredric March Theatre, includes a traditional proscenium (flat front stage) that’s 40 feet wide by 16 feet high. Built in 1971, the theater is located in the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus. The exterior features a 1970s era UW campus architectural style that embraces cement, in this case the cement reminiscent of geometric trees supporting a flat roof on the glass-enclosed entry and lobby. The interior features honeycombed red-brick walls and a slightly arcing seating area with no center aisle, with a general impression of closeness to the stage, which is especially wide. Leg room is abundant. The acoustics are crisp for the spoken voice in plays.