by Hunter Johnson
Cedarville’s newest stage production, Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky,” starts out as a show about simple characters with seemingly straightforward personalities. Those characters, however, quickly reveal their many layers of underlying complexity. A Midwestern sister secretly possesses remarkable talent as a composer. An adept astronomer hides untapped rebellious potential underneath her stoic demeanor. A privileged man has a deep sense of kindness and compassion underneath his shallow exterior. The list goes on.
Directed by Theatre Professor Stacey Stratton, “Silent Sky” tells the real-life story of early 1900s astronomer Henrietta Leavitt and her journey as a pioneering woman in the male-dominated world of astronomy. Stratton takes Gunderson’s wonderful script and infuses it with the heart and soul that she has become renowned for at Cedarville.
This play marks her third directorial production at Cedarville since her arrival two years ago. After directing the period drama “The Heiress” and the tragedy “All My Sons,” “Silent Sky” is Stratton’s first show where uplifting the audience is its primary intention. Her knack for difficult drama shines in this play as well as her incredible ability to bring the audience to tears of joy.
Of course, no director can bring such wonderful layers to characters or evoke such joyful tears without stellar actors who can embody those characters and elicit those deep emotions.
Starring in the lead role of Henrietta, freshman Theatre Performance and Marketing major Ava Ramsey gives a powerhouse leading performance that guides every step of the story. Ramsey’s strength as an actress and the authentic emotions that she deftly brings to the character give “Silent Sky” a lead that audiences can truly root for. Her sheer commitment to the role enables Henrietta to shine as a woman who cares deeply about learning the ways of science and discovering the secrets of the stars.
Supporting Ramsey in this production are freshman and senior Theatre Performance majors Courtney Collinsworth and Sara Warnshuis, respectively, as well as sophomore Finance and Economics major Caleb Stechschulte and junior Psychology major Haven Sidell.
Collinsworth and Warnshuis portray fellow female astronomers Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, respectively. Cannon serves as a compelling example of a character who grows dramatically between the beginning and end of the play. Collinsworth’s highly believable performance beautifully displays Cannon’s extreme growth and development, and her pitch-perfect subtlety throughout makes for some of the most impactful small moments of the whole show.
Warnshuis, who graduates next month, finishes off her multitude of productions at Cedarville with a role very fitting to her time here. She’s been able to show off her outright comedic chops many times (i.e. “The Comedy of Errors,” “Four Comic One-Act Plays of Chekhov”), but in the two performances she’s given in Stratton’s productions (“The Heiress” and “Silent Sky”), she’s been able to bring so much depth and realism to her comedic sensibilities. Her portrayal of the natively Scottish Fleming is both hysterical and highly impactful to watch.
Playing the sole male role of “Silent Sky” is Stechschulte as Peter Shaw, Henrietta’s fellow astronomer and love interest. Stechschulte manages to take a character that easily could have come across as too awkward or flat-out unlikable and find the absolute perfect medium for the role. His performance is charming, funny, and delightfully bumbling. He portrays Shaw’s flaws in an empathetic way that allows his highly frustrating choices to remain frustrating while never coming across as one-dimensional.
And then there’s Sidell as Henrietta’s sister, Margaret Leavitt. Not enough can be said about the level of nuance and grace in Sidell’s performance. She brings a grounded presence to this story of astronomy with her midwestern contentment and endearing love of piano. Margaret’s presence is absolutely necessary for the tensions of the story to work. The tug of war between family and work is integral to Henrietta’s story, and Sidell’s incredibly beautiful work here allows that tension to be something that audiences truly care about.
Stratton’s previous two shows were very realistic in their storytelling. This one, however, takes a different approach. While it’s still grounded in its tone, it’s highly theatrical in design. It implements projections, music, and lighting in ways that reinforce the story brilliantly. Theatre Professor Jonathan Sabo’s scenic and lighting design, along with Tim Phipps’ technical direction of the show, isn’t just an addition to the story; it’s the entire backbone of it. Projections are used from beginning to end, not only to indicate the setting of a particular scene but also to emphasize the colossal beauty of space and the stars.
And the music directly complements Sabo’s design as that backbone. Jenny Giering’s original score of music is featured all throughout the play, not just during scene breaks and intermissions but also during actual scenes to emphasize particular story moments or emotional beats.
On top of Giering’s score, actress Haven Sidell (Margaret Leavitt) wrote an original piece of music specifically for the play that ends up a major highlight of the whole production. To have an actress write and perform the very song that her character writes and performs in the story of the play is both a nice narrative touch and an astounding achievement, especially given how gorgeous a piece of music it is. Its beauty is evident both in the piano version played by Sidell on stage during the play and the orchestrated arrangement of the song done by Cedarville student Jana Molinari.
Every single element comes together in Stratton’s production of “Silent Sky.” It works on a technical level, on a performance level, and, most importantly, on an emotional level. In a word, “Silent Sky” is stunning.
“Silent Sky” performs April 16-18. Tickets are available at the SSC information desk. Online streaming of the show will be available April 17-18 at cedar.to/silentsky
Professor Stacey Stratton will direct Cedarville’s upcoming Fall production of “Anne of Green Gables,” performing September 30 through October 10, 2021. Open-call audition signups are currently available. To audition, sign up for an audition time slot on the call-board across from the theatre offices (SSC-223) no later than Wednesday 4/21.
Hunter Johnson is a senior Theatre Performance Major and an A&E writer Cedars. He spends his time acting on stage, directing off stage, and critiquing the endless amounts of content that Disney pumps out.