| Lalanya Gunn, Nicole Rayner, Karen Moore, Sara |
Beck, and Les Ico
Three shows in, the 2018 holiday play season is making me feel like the boy who cried wolf – but in reverse. Will readers believe the praise I am heaping on some of the shows I’m seeing? Will they dismiss my pleas to “not miss this gem” as hyperbole, naïve sycophancy, or intellectual cowardice? This is a risk I’ve got to run, because Beaverton Civic Theatre’s beautiful production of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky demands star billing (pun intended) and deserves nothing but full houses. Director Patrick Nims may be new to Oregon, but Silent Sky is ample proof that his impressive Bay area resume is much more than hype.
The play is based on the true story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, whose brilliant analytical work at Harvard (kept behind the scenes in the male-dominated academic world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) formed the basis for Edward Hubble to establish that the universe is expanding. Working as part of “Pickering’s Harem,” an all-woman team of human “computers” under the direction of astronomer Edward Charles Pickering, Leavitt and her female colleagues set the stage for much of modern astronomy. In Gunderson’s version of the story, a much larger group has been condensed to just three (real) women, Leavitt, Pickering’s former housekeeper Williamina Fleming, and fiercely feminist Annie Jump Cannon. The cast is completed with two fictionalized characters, Henrietta’s sister Margaret and Peter Shaw, a young astronomer working under Pickering. While Henrietta has left the family home to pursue her work at Harvard, homebody Margaret pursues the thoroughly traditional roles of wife and mother, sustained by her religion and her love of music. Despite their vast external differences, the two sisters maintain a powerful bond, and it is Margaret’s music that gives Henrietta the inspiration for her greatest discovery. The plot is embellished nicely by Shaw’s infatuation with Henrietta, the growing relationship between the three “computers,” and Henrietta’s (genuine, and tragic) severe illness that ends her life just as her work is on the verge of receiving public acclaim.
I was amazed by the precision of the performances of Karen Moore (Henrietta Leavitt), Sara Beck (Annie Cannon), and Lalanya Gunn (Williamina Fleming). Moore’s machine gun delivery captures not only the character’s partial deafness, but also a quirky, almost-autistic obsession with the night sky and the potential vastness of the universe. Gunn maintains a lovely Scottish accent throughout, embellishing her cheeky British wit with her warm, down-to-earth approach to life. Beck is simply fierce – an angry mama bear protecting, not her babies, but the science she reveres, yet allowing a reluctant tenderness toward her fellow computers to color her performance. The chemistry between the three women is evocative and believable, and their comedic interactions lend a lovely light touch to an otherwise intense work.
Les Ico provides critical counterpoint – Ico initially inspires contempt, but later pity as he captures the spirit of every bumbling, embarrassed, easily intimidated and easily infatuated physics grad student I’ve ever met (and I’ve met many!). Nicole Rayner gives Margaret just the right touch of the traditional woman of the era, but with a strength of character that rivals Henrietta’s. The chasm between the two sisters is both illustrated and narrowed when Rayner’s character says, “We both look in the same direction, but our understanding is distinct.” Watching Rayner, there is no temptation to belittle Margaret’s worldview even if we do not embrace it.
The lead role in Silent Sky is, in many ways, filled by the sometimes spine-tingling video projection that surrounds the audience on three sides – at times, it’s like watching a play in a planetarium. Themes of the insignificance one person, one planet, even one solar system in the vast scope of the universe are exquisitely expressed as the scenery transitions from a rural home to Harvard to the vastness of the ocean, then ultimately dwarfed by the majesty of the silent sky. Director Patrick Nims deserves top billing as the architect of this visual feast, and for assembling a cast worthy of his vision. I’ll say it – do not miss this gem.
Beaverton Civic Theatre’s Silent Sky runs through Saturday, December 15th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.