Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Sense of Discovery Fuels ‘Silent Sky’ in Fond du Lac

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Photo caption: Hannah Holzmann portrays universe visionary Henrietta Leavitt in the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac Theatre Department production of “Silent Sky.” In the rear is the Harvard Observatory where Henrietta Leavitt toiled. (UW-Fond du Lac photo)

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A century ago, Henrietta Leavitt painstakingly put into place the keys for measuring faraway galaxies.

The play “Silent Sky” brings to light her daunting tasks and determined personality.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson has the right touch in creating an inspirational experience.

At the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac, director Richard Gustin of the faculty and his cast and company latch onto this treasure trove of a play and create a solid production.

Performances continue to Sunday, March 17, in Prairie Theatre on campus.

The production helps mark the 50th year of the campus and its theater offerings and 25th year for Gustin, who created a notable program that links campus resources around play productions.

At the fore in the production is Hannah Holzmann, who radiates Henrietta Leavitt’s passions to find the hidden whys in the universe against many odds.

Snapshot: Henrietta Leavitt is tapped to leave her family in Wisconsin by Harvard University to become a “computer” (a grunt for a professor) for research in astronomy. She joins other women who are treated by male academics as lesser functionaries.

This play is a universe of its own as it takes on society at the time, women’s rights, faith versus science, matters of the heart, disability (Henrietta Leavitt is hard of hearing), academia, unknowns in the sky and the Theory of Relativity – fusing much with the repeated strains of the hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

This production treats “Silent Sky” with the great respect it deserves.

Time is turned back through clothing, music of the era and projections of period photographs of city and farm.

The wide stage includes setups for the story’s places – the Harvard Observatory offices in the center, surrounded by the Leavitt home in Wisconsin, an ocean liner on the Atlantic and Henrietta Leavitt’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hannah Holzmann climbs into Henrietta Leavitt’s skin with a consistent, confident performance with many fine points.

Elizabeth Knoblett portrays Margaret Leavitt, the concerned sister who stays behind and lives a life of duty, family, faith and music. Key scenes that resonate include the sisters’ individual views of heaven and with a piano, which Elizabeth Knoblett plays as part of the development of Henrietta Leavitt’s eureka moment.

Brittany Smith portrays the grumpy, fastidious boss of the “computers” – and feisty persona for the women’s right to vote.

Korrynn Lefeber portrays a “computer” who’s not all that serious about the lofty matters around her and is full of quips, usually at the expense of male officiousness. The comedy relief comes with a Scottish brogue, which Brittany Smith applies with ease – a plus in her portrayal.

Marty Ryan portrays Peter Shaw, a conundrum to Henrietta Leavitt. There is the official Mr. Shaw, a kind of gatekeeper to the unapproachable academics at Harvard. There is the unofficial Peter, who takes to Henrietta Leavitt in shy, shy ways – and she to him. The character is likeably dislikable and vice versa over time, and Marty Ryan has a knack for being quite convincing.

“Silent Sky” closes with an embrace of the notion of time (and people) passing while in the background is one of the awing images of vast outer space taken by the Hubble Telescope. It was Henrietta Leavitt who opened the door for Edwin Hubble (the telescope namesake) and colleagues to put definition to the universe.

“Silent Sky” is one of the best plays you’ll ever see, and this production is a rewarding offering of it.

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Creative: Playwright – Lauren Gunderson; producer and director – Richard Gustin; technical director – Bruce Towell; lighting design – Andy Sehloff; production manager – Shannon Roemer; stage managers – Shannon Roemer, Brian Burghardt; costume design – Cheryl DuBrava; hair – Leaya Steinike; lights/sound – Angel De La Cruz, Carissa Tank, Shannon Roemer; images operator – Brian Burghardt

Cast:

Henrietta Leavitt – Hannah Holzmann

Margaret Leavitt – Elizabeth Knoblett

Peter Shaw – Marty Ryan

Annie Cannon – Brittany Smith

Williamina Fleming – Koryyn Lefeber

Running time: Two hours

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. March 13, 14, 15, 16 and 2 p.m. March 17

Info: (920) 929-1111

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RELATED: As part of the Theatre Interdisciplinary Program, a campus-wide group discussion will be held at 12 p.m. Thursday, March 14, in University Center Commons. The public is invited.

THE VENUE: Prairie Theater is a 340-seat theater in University Center of the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac. Distinctive trait for audience members: Especially spacious seating area, with much leg room. The performance space is wide, with a proscenium (flat-front) with a dark stage curtain and slightly bowed space of approximately 12 feet reaching toward the audience. The performance space is approximately four feet above the seating area, with another rise of about two feet for some settings for “Leviathan.” The seats are of rose taupe fabric with a geometric pattern, with the backs being plastic and the arms wood. The floor is poured cement, with four aisles carpeted. The ceiling is a configuration of dark, rectangular acoustical clouds. The side walls feature tan quarried stone in approximately 15-inch squares for the first 12 or so feet up, leading to six wooden rectangles and three large, tan areas above that framed in wood. Behind the side walls are ramped hallways that lead to alcoves on either side of the main seating area that look like porches, including metal railings and two seats. On the alcove walls are more large tiles that look to be for acoustical purposes. The theater is lighted dimly. Outside the theater is a large commons area that is part of the University Center building.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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