The four women who anchor the Chemainus Theatre Festival’s new play Silent Sky are absolute stars — supernovae, even.
Silent Sky stars Emma Slipp as pioneering astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, and she delivers a tour de force performance that grabs the audience from the beginning and doesn’t let up until the curtain.
Slipp is simply spectacular as Henrietta, building a full character that is smart, witty, warm, passionate, sometimes shortsighted and selfish, to her detriment, and always dedicated. It is like leaving a friend at the end of the show.
The beauty of a wonderful speaking voice doesn’t come up much, but Slipp’s is worth noting, as her rich tones add depth and beauty to the wonderful script by Lauren Gunderson.
Surrounding Slipp are equally impressive performances from Andrea Cross as Henrietta’s sister Margaret, Luisa Jojic as colleague Annie Cannon and Anita Wittenberg as colleague, friend and scene stealer Williamina Fleming.
The sisterly relationship between Margaret and Henrietta comes across as real, as Cross expertly displays Margaret’s love, envy, exasperation, anger and admiration for her sister at various points throughout their lives. She is Henrietta’s opposite — happy to be a mother and stay at home in Wisconsin, to Henrietta’s thirst for discovery, and desire to throw off the bonds of the traditional life expected of a woman at that time.
This play is both a period piece and timeless. It takes place between 1900 and 1920, largely at the Harvard Observatory where Henrietta, Annie and Williamina toil, cataloguing the stars in the sky from photographic plates sent to them by their male colleagues who actually get to use the observatory’s telescope to look at the heavens.
All three women defy, in their own ways, what was thought at the time to be the inferiority of women’s intellectual capacity.
One of the best parts of the show is that, while it is a drama that addresses several weighty subjects — women in science, our place in the universe, what we leave behind as a legacy and how we do it (the meaning of life) — it’s all balanced by wonderful, gentle humour that laces through the script from top to bottom.
Jojic and Wittenberg are simply a delight as Henrietta’s fellow “computers”. Jojic’s stiff bluntness as Cannon is hilarious, and Wittenberg is a standout as the down to earth Fleming, who doesn’t take life too seriously, and keeps those around her from doing so, too. Wittenberg’s delivery is spot on, bringing the often mischeivous former housekeeper to life with a twinkle in her eye.
Jay Clift as Peter Shaw, the only man in the play, is excellent as well as a counterpoint to the women, Henrietta’s one-time love interest, and a symbol of the patriarchy that rules the roost outside of their small offices. A tribute to Gunderson’s skill as a playwright, Shaw is as well-realized and multi-faceted a character as the women, when it would have been all too easy to simply cast him as a villain, or a two-dimensional foil. And Clift gives a nuanced performance that will have you loving Peter, hating Peter and liking Peter all in the course of the play’s run-time.
It’s worth noting that the set for this show is something special: simple, yet incredibly effective.
The ending, which I won’t spoil for you, is transcendent.
This play is an absolute gem that should not be missed.
Get your tickets by calling 1-800-565-7738 or visit chemainustheatrefestival.ca