American Stage’s luminous ‘Silent Sky’ will leave Tampa Bay theater fans angry and heartbroken

American Stage has given us a gift this holiday season — take it.

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click to enlarge FEW FAULTS IN THESE STARS: (L-R) Karel K. Wright (Williamina Fleming), Susan Maris (Henrietta Leavitt) and Vickie Daignault* (Annie Cannon). - JOEY CLAY STUDIO
FEW FAULTS IN THESE STARS: (L-R) Karel K. Wright (Williamina Fleming), Susan Maris (Henrietta Leavitt) and Vickie Daignault* (Annie Cannon).

I’ve tried and tried to find a way not to feel like America’s history is that of screwing over women and people of color, and, reader, I gotta tell you, American Stage isn’t making it any easier. Its production of Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky” left me angry and heartbroken, mostly for Henrietta Leavitt (played by Susan Maris). She, unlike her elder co-workers Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming (played by Vickie Daignault and Karel K. Wright, respectively,) believes her work as a silent woman computer could lead to more.

“Silent Sky”
American Stage, 163 3rd St. N., St. Petersburg
Through Dec. 22. $44-$54.

She will, over the course of the play, be proven wrong. Her older co-workers know how their struggle is not for them, but for subsequent generations. Henrietta does not — at least, not for most of the play. How she gets there, and what happens to her along the way, makes for a compelling story, somewhat tragic but, in the hands of director Kristin Clippard, expertly told.

Three years ago, I missed the chance to see “Silent Sky” at Tampa Rep (read a synopsis of the play), and I wasn’t about to make that mistake twice. While I think very much I would have liked to see this show set in a black box, as Tampa Rep did, the dressing a better-funded theater like American Stage provides didn’t detract from the story of a female scientist relegated to astronomical bookkeeping because of her vagina. The story, no matter where it gets told, matters.

So onto why this particular production deserves your time and money. As I’ve said, the story alone merits attention, but the care given to this production stands up to scrutiny, too. Steve Mitchell’s set splits, as needed, into three separate areas on stage, which function well — for the most part (audience members seated house right will have trouble with the first scene, where the action plays primarily to house left). The sets rotate from Wisconsin to Boston to either more Boston or more fantastical places. Lynne Chase’s lighting design, if you’ll pardon the pun, shines. The costumes rarely change, although Cannon and Fleming’s do alter in delightful ways.

The cast, as one demands of American Stage, was resplendent at the Saturday matinee. Kate Berg’s Margaret Leavitt, an anchor to her sister Henrietta’s star-fueled existence, will likely not get enough credit from audiences, but she should. This is the sister who chose tradition over career but, as Berg’s performance makes clear, the point of feminism is, indeed, choices. Benjamin T. Ismail’s Peter, essentially a mid-level manager, brings levity to the performance. Without his character, “Silent Sky” would be damn sad.

As much as you’ll fall in love with Henrietta and Margaret and (mostly) Peter, though, Annie and Williamina will blow you away. Daignault and Wright turn in performances so resplendent, so luminous, so real that I would have sat in the theater another two hours to hear them talk and banter. They deserve a sequel, or a prequel — both the actors and the characters. The banter, their working relationship morphed to friendship, their solidarity in how they allow feminism to evolve — these are all nuances of the show that another actor may not have forced to blossom as they did. Their energy, pace and cadence make these roles showstoppers. 

Of course, this is not to demean anyone in the cast, because this truly divine production shines at every turn, and, when the figurative curtain fell, “Silent Sky” left me at once satiated and hungering for more. Between technical and performance aspects, I couldn’t find a weak link. And trust me, I looked. American Stage has given us a gift this holiday season — take it.

Cathy Salustri is the former arts + entertainment editor for Creative Loafing. Contact her here

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About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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