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Final Weekend for ICT’s “Silent Sky”

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For the smart playwright, history has always provided a mother lode of inspiration; this has been true since Shakespeare’s time.

Lauren Gunderson is availing herself of this truism to great success.

Background, about physicist Ralph Alpher a pioneer in developing the Big Bang theory, Ada and the Memory Engine, about the relationship between Charles Babbage, who originated the concept of a digital programmable computer, and Lady Ada Lovelace; often called the first computer programmer.

The Revolutionists is a comedy of four historical women who lived during the French Revolution.

Eye of the Beheld focuses on a youthful Leonardo Da Vinci. We Are Denmark offers the astronomer Tycho Brahe as a character, and Bauer is the history of Rudolf Bauer and Hilla von Rebay played out against the background of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Most of these works bring to the forefront the forgotten contributions of those women supposedly found at the back of every great man.

This is the case of Silent Sky and, like her far stronger and much more mature work Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, it also concerns women in the sciences.

In Émilie, Gunderson presents the fascinating story of one of the great women of pre-revolutionary France: Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise Du Châtelet.  Mathematician, physicist, supporter of Denis Diderot and the Encyclopédie, translator of Newton and one of the first to recognize the importance of making science accessible to women and laymen; she is a towering figure who is finally emerging from the shadows of history.  But the paramount relationship of Du Châtelet’s life was with that colossus of The Enlightenment, Voltaire.

Part of the strength of Gunderson’s Émilie is that she has two Titans from whom to draw and place on her stage.  In Silent Sky the playwright has no such cast of Titans to draw from and from the history she has takes, but, sparsely.

Edward Pickering was not a character of great drama.  As the director of the Harvard College Observatory for nearly 42 years he had one great leap of inspiration – the fusion of star gazing and photography.  To evaluate the thousands of photographic cells obtained night after night, Pickering recruited over 80 women to work for him.

His scientific achievements aside, this seems to be the only dramatic event of his life, and every biography of him mentions “Pickering’s Harem.”

ICT Production-Silent Sky

Jennifer Parsons, Leslie Stevens, Jennifer Cannon, Eric Wentz (Photo by Tracey Roman – Courtesy of ICT)

In Silent Sky Gunderson selects a trio of women from that harem, Williamina Fleming (Jennifer Parsons) Annie Cannon (Leslie Stevens) and Henrietta Leavitt (Jennifer Cannon) who contributed the most to the science with her work at Harvard.

Gunderson keeps Pickering offstage, and the only male allowed on is Pickering’s assistant and well-meaning dolt Peter (Eric Wentz).

The trouble here is that Gunderson has also left off her stage any strong source of conflict.

Yes, there is some conflict spoken of with her parson father when Leavitt takes the job at Harvard, but he is off stage as well and he loves his daughter.  There is some conflict with her devout stay at home sister Margaret (Erin Anne Williams) but they’re sisters and they love each other.

There is some brief conflict when Leavitt meets her co-workers but the bonds of sisterhood are strong and they come to love each other.  Lastly there is a hint of gender bias conflict between Leavitt and Peter but he’s a well meaning dolt and they end up….well, loving each other.

Silent Sky is a well-crafted feel-good evening in the theatre.  If Gunderson had decided to draw on Scottish history for her play then we may have wound up with a sweet love story about that couple with the funny accents the Macbeths.

But for a play with “drama-lite” as its most egregious flaw the International City Theatre is a perfect venue.

ICT is not in the business of challenging or outraging its audiences.  Its intention is to stage well-mounted shows that will delight audiences and most of all entertain them.

And in this, they boast a long track record of success.

Their productions are always artistically staged and Silent Sky benefits from this attention.  Christopher Scott Murillo’s set, Donna Ruzika’s light design and Kim DeShazo’s costumes fuse to uplift the action on stage while charming the senses.

Todd Nielsen is one of those directors you can describe in a single term, “pro.”  He has been in the game long enough to know when to swing, when to not and occasionally can still bat one out of the stadium (Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune was one such show.)     

ICT also has a fine stable of actors upon whom to draw and the entire ensemble here shows that.

Parsons, Williams and Wentz all rise to the occasion and show fine work, the only trouble being that the playwright has provided them with a stoop rather than the steps of the Opéra Gamier stairway upon which to rise.

Stevens does solid work as well, but my sense of her true potential had me regretting throughout the show that I hadn’t seen her Lola in Damn Yankees.

Cannon’s talents were apparent to me in ICT’s production of Abigail/1702 when she turned in a superb performance in one of the most contemptible plays it’s ever been my fate to suffer through.**

Cannon shows her worth by pulling every moment out of Silent Sky that the show has and then manufacturing a few of her own.

Cannon, her fellow actors and the skills of the crew that ICT has, manages to make the evening into one that will entertain the majority of those attending, while successfully hiding the basic flaw of the playwright; that she has presented as drama what is at most the stuff of a fairly good segment of “The American Experience.”

♦    ♦   ♦

(** Abigail/1702 is a “sequel” to Arthur Miller’s Crucible in which witches are real and the Devil appears.  Should my path ever cross with playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa I hope it’s when I’m carrying a sock stuffed with fresh “horse apples.”)

(NOTE: Featured Picture — Erin Anne Williams and Jennifer Cannon — Photo by Tracey Roman)

Silent Sky’s Closing Weekend:

Saturday, Sept 9 — 8pm
Sunday, Sept 10 — 2pm

INTERNATIONAL CITY THEATRE
Long Beach Performing Arts Center
330 East Seaside Way
Long Beach, CA 90802

For Tickets and Information:
562-436-4610 or
www.InternationalCityTheatre.org

 

 


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An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, Among the Vipers was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist three times in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest's stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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