Chicago Theatre Review
Silent Sky – First Folio Theatre
Slight Sky is a play about faith, thought not the kind you’ll find holy books and buildings. It makes it a fitting piece for First Folio Theater’s cloistered space, with Christopher Kriz’s original piano compositions conjuring the stars (courtesy of John “Smooch” Medina”) across the vaunts and arches. Our heroine, the Astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (Cassandra Bissell) begins standing under the starry field, in 1900 in her own Wisconsin, contemplating her own heaven of celestial bodies. Leavitt is consumed with faith, in her own abilities and the thought that there is more to the universe than can be discovered, and so burning with a desire to learn she bounds away, hand in hand playwright Lauren Gunderson, to Harvard, there to server as a human computer and, under her own tireless energies, to solve the riddle of where humanity stands in the universe.
Gunderson has composed a stunning script to raise and honor Leavitt and her industry. While the historical facts tend to be studded on, rather than incorporated, Gunderson’s portrayal of the physics, and the application there of, are straightforward and resounding. And, even more than a sterling bio-piece, she has made it a thrilling comedy; not only for Henrietta’s sharp, off-the-cuff cuts, but the warm, familiar banter between her coworkers and fellow pioneers Williamina Fleming (Belinda Bremner) and Annie Cannon (Jeanne Affelder) (particularly from “Will’s” frizzy Scottish wryness,) and the sisterly short hand that pops between Leavitt and her more conventional but no less accomplished sister Margaret (Hayley Rice).
These conversations, both in person and through the clever language of correspondence Gunderson devises, bring Henrietta’s history not only to life, but into sharp relief. The abrasions between sisters as they try to settle their different theologies and lifestyles, the duty to family or to legacy, are especially poignant (and still sparkle with the playwrights fine phrases). A more … physical chemistry exists between Henrietta and Peter Shaw (Wardell Julius Clark) her nominal superior and moderate irritant who, as natural in the course of such events, becomes something more. Despite an odd choice of syntax, Clark is absolutely adorable as he works his way around Shaw’s tumble-tonguedness as well as credibly carrying the ghosts of the male scientific establishment on his shoulders. The shy grins and looks of admiring consternation that telegraph between them are most engaging show.
Yet in spite of this warm and well knit ensemble cracking jokes and weathering the unforeseen squalls of life together, the story is firmly held by Henrietta herself, and what a marvel she is. Bissell radiates the boundless energy of her charge, skipping and sweeping and grabbing fistfuls of air to wrest meaning out of them. Her performance is a tour deforce. Her breakneck pace has no time for the strictures of the Edwardian era, and it’s both inspiring and a little heartbreaking to see her ram into social walls that oughtn’t to be there. She carries the same presence and energy through the long astronomy, burning for some scrap of data, level voice carrying clear as a bell, with mingled vibrations of love of the math and fear that she’ll never be able to prove herself. By the end of the play, Bissell’s tear-filled voice as she looks out over the universe her ideas, and her faith, have helped uncover, it is a hard heart that is not moved to add an amen of a sniffle or a sob. It’s the kind of performance, the kind of story, that lifts the spirits, that engenders care and affection, and cements a new appreciation for this boundless wonder called the universe.
by Ben Kemper
First Folio Theater
1717 W 31st Oak Brook, IL 60523
(For those without cars take an Uber from Forest Park Blue Line Station, it’s well worth the cost)
Wednesdays at 8:00
Thursdays at 3:00
Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00
Sundays at 3:00
Running time: 1hr and 30 minutes with intermission.
For tickets call: 630-986-8067
Or go to www.firstfolio.org
For more information about this and other productions (and half priced tickets) visit theaterinchicago.com