Theater is best when it’s honest. When I watch live theater, I’m always evaluating the decisions that were made – from the script choice, to the set design, to the blocking – to see whether the theater company answered the most important question: Why this piece, for this audience, in this way?
I think the first two questions had easy answers for Peninsula Players Theatre when it chose Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky for this season.
Starring Cassandra Bissell, the play centers around Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an American astronomer who discovered the first standard that astronomers would use to map the distance between Earth and the surrounding stars and galaxies. I can guarantee that every audience member who stepped outside during the intermission took time to look up through the trees at the stars and to ponder their place in the universe as Leavitt did a hundred years ago.
Peninsula Players used a reduced set to its maximum effect in Silent Sky: a raised platform with three almost translucent desks, nearly glass-like chairs and a lighting grid exposed on three sides. The centerpiece was a gridded backdrop, black and nondescript on its own, but it slowly became speckled with brightly backlit stars as the story unfolded and Leavitt began to discover that this galaxy is not alone in the universe. Transitions were in full view of the audience and were often accompanied by Ashley Lanyon’s hauntingly beautiful vocals, which created the striking ambience of the piece.
Combined with the reduced set design, Elizabeth Margolius’ direction really cemented the honesty of Silent Sky. Special attention was paid to the text, with a clear distinction between dialogue and prose, moving the story along in a way that was driving but also allowed the actors to really live in the scenes – especially the moments of awkward romance between Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Peter, played by Neil Brookshire.
What I loved about the honesty of the play – from the set, to the direction, to the performance – is that when a company really nails a stripped-down presentation, it has the opportunity to surprise you with more lavish choices. The final moments of Silent Sky were breathtaking and so perfectly presented that you could hear gasps from the audience.
You’d had time to really connect with the characters because apart from a few simple props, the characters were all you saw on stage. Taking in the bittersweet conclusions of their stories was the perfect primer for the production’s final striking tableau, in which these characters – their journey complete – were illuminated one by one, bathed in light from all sides, literally becoming the Silent Sky.