by Jillian Carter
Community Players, Inc. in Beatrice kicked off their 2020-21 season last night with Silent Sky, and I was lucky enough to attend the historical drama. Covid-19 restrictions were in full swing, and went off without a hitch. I felt safe and comfortable in the large theatre, distanced from other masked groups, with the roomy leg space I’ve come to look forward to at every Beatrice production.
Alright, coronavirus talk out of the way, this play is a masterpiece. Playwright Lauren Gunderson has written a beautiful piece of work, filled with relatable characters and circumstances that resonate today, though they are set in the early 1900s. Silent Sky follows the life of Henrietta Leavitt, a trailblazing astronomer whose major scientific breakthrough allowed for nothing less than the measurement of our universe.
Leavitt is played by Community Players mainstay Morgan Tunink, whose steely posture, withering stare, and impressive presence captivate the audience from beginning to end. Somehow, Tunink manages to make a somewhat narcissistic character quite sympathetic. This is the kind of woman who attempts to comfort her grieving sister with Einstein’s theories. Funny, yes, but also filled with palpable emotion, and Tunink nimbly conveys the struggle Leavitt feels when confronted with such an unscientific concept as that of love. Tunink is at her best and most commanding in the spotlighted monologues delivered to the ether, giving intense glances into Leavitt’s mind.
The other women in the story, Leavitt’s sister Margaret, and fellow female “computers,” Annie and Williamina, are deftly played by Paige Patton, Laura Raber McElravy, and Heidi Krieger, respectively. One of the most impressive accomplishments of this play is that Gunderson manages to showcase how empowerment and pride look and feel different to different women. Patton’s Margaret is a force to be reckoned with, though her life takes a much different path than her sister’s. The end of Act I belongs entirely to Patton, as she flexes some acting chops the rest of the play keeps hidden. Scottish housekeeper-turned-astronomer Williamina could easily fall flat as the comedic relief plot device, but not under Krieger’s watch. She brings an intriguing mix of comedy and depth to her character, which is no easy feat. Of course, she needs a foil, and thankfully McElravy excels as a straightwoman and as an actor who knows how to allow her costars to shine while holding the line. She truly anchors the show.
At the beginning of the night, Henrietta Leavitt emphatically states, “I insist on the exceptional,” and I believe this to be true of director Jamie Ulmer as well. Ulmer’s scenic, lighting, and sound design are certainly exceptional, aided in no small part by Tyler Rinne’s scene painting and Missy Marlatt’s costuming. From the dramatic lighting and projection effects to the stylized scenery and authentic period costumes, Ulmer creates a romantic world on the stage.
What is truly exceptional, though, is the masterful way in which Ulmer’s direction manages to contrast the women, the locations, the duelling tales of love and science, and even the stars. At times the stars are mathematical wonders, and at others they are the kind of romantic background that makes an audience swoon. Ulmer allows for a delicate balance between the possible love story and the story of Leavitt’s career. Both tales have the potential to be thrilling, exhilarating, suspenseful, infuriating, encouraging, and crushing, but it’s the successful juxtaposition of the two that makes them so.
Of course, the lone male actor, Mike Fox as lesser astronomer Peter Shaw, does his part to help the love story along as well. Fox gives a fun turn as a fumbling suitor, but is at his best when displaying his vulnerability.
Silent Sky ends with a question that will stay with the audience for the car ride home and beyond: What is a legacy? For Ulmer and his talented cast and crew, this show wouldn’t be a bad one.
If you go: Remaining performances of Silent Sky are September 12, 18, and 19 at 7:30pm, and September 13 and 20 at 2:00pm at the Community Players Theatre, located at 412 Ella Street in Beatrice. The show will also be available to rent on Vimeo soon. Tickets for in-person shows and the video recording are available online, and physical tickets are also available at the box office or by phone at (402) 228-1801.
Jillian Carter is a local playwright, actress, and director, as well as the managing editor of Appearing Locally.
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