Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Measuring the Milky Way

April 15, 2011

Monette Magrath as Henrietta Leavitt in Silent Sky Photo: Henry DiRocco/SCR 2011

Astronomical research, at first glance, may not seem like the richest wellspring for theatrical ventures. But somewhat surprisingly, Lauren Gunderson is proving just such an assumption wrong with the world premiere of a new play at South Coast Repertory this month called Silent Sky. Actually, Gunderson has written a number of plays about science-related topics, and Silent Sky joins their ranks, though it is also about the pull of family commitments. In particular, the story focuses on one of the great unsung heroes of late 19th-century astronomy, Henrietta Leavitt. Leavitt, working for next to nothing in the Harvard College Observatory of the late 19th century discovered a groundbreaking property of stars that paved the way for her successors including Edwin Hubble to better determine the distances between stars and the vastness of the universe overall. Leavitt's story is a compelling one considering the lack of opportunity for women to excel in and receive credit for work in the scientific fields of her time, and Gunderson seizes the opportunity to flesh out Leavitt's achievements and the personal characteristics that contributed to her perseverance.

In fact, the work-life and scientific advancement scenes in the play are some of the strongest in Silent Sky. Gunderson is especially adept at translating technically sophisticated, if historical, material into something watchable. Monette Magrath, the actress who plays Leavitt, gives a credible and very watchable performance. Her interactions with professional colleagues like Annie Cannon, played by Colette Kilroy, and Williamina Fleming, played by Amelia White provide much of the driving force behind the often intellectual action in the show. I also rather liked the attractive if simple staging which incorporated a video projection of stars on a stage largely uncluttered except for the suggestion of arcs and spheres. If there is a downfall in Silent Sky it's the relatively clunky family, romantic, and personal background foisted upon Leavitt's story. Relatively little is known about Leavitt's personal life, and Gunderson has fleshed out some details with rather predictable storylines. There is a sister, Margaret, played by Erin Cottrell who is initially hurt by Henrietta's desire to leave home to do scientific work. The health and welfare of her family frequently draws Henrietta away from her work as well as a burgeoning love affair with Peter Shaw, played by Nick Toren. Gunderson does not overplay this imagined frustrated romance, but it can feel a bit cliché and certainly forced as if the arc of the scientific discovery plot isn't compelling enough on its own.

But regardless of the relative success or failure of Silent Sky, the play represents one of the most important and exciting things about South Coast Repertory, the organization's commitment to new American plays. Gunderson's play is an SCR commission and part of the 14th year of the company's Pacific Playwrights Festival. Again SCR has made room for two fully staged productions of new plays and several readings of works in development. The festivals reading will start on April 29 and the second fully staged production this year, Itamar Moses' Completeness, will start previews on April 17. The festival is one of Southern California's theater gems and it’s great for audiences to be exposed to so much new work on a regular basis.


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