Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Silent Sky
Insight Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Elizabeth Ann Townsend, Chrissy Calkins Steele,
Gwendolyn Wotawa, Jennifer Theby-Quinn,
and Alex Freeman

Photo by John Lamb
I'm still on the fence about 21st century playwright Lauren Gunderson. She's rocketed to success with plays like Silent Sky, from 2015, on stage now at the Kranzberg Arts Center and, at least as notably, with Miss Bennet: Christmas At Pemberley, which played the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (and theaters all across America) almost a year ago. But as long as you can get terrific actors and directors to add in "everything else" to what Ms. Gunderson gives you, it will all look (and feel) great to modern audiences, and make for a pleasant, life-affirming visit to the theatre. The problem is that those seem to be Ms. Gunderson's only goals. When setting pen to page, she is the "anti-Mamet."

But, as a modern American playwright, Ms. Gunderson can at least pleasure us with self-congratulatory present day ideals, to shock the more staid characters in an era of bygone elegance, after the fashion of TV's "Downton Abbey" or "The Crown" or "Victoria." Still, the devil's bargain in every case is that it will be devoid of dangerous confrontation, or imaginative twists and turns in plotting, or powerful division among the characters (and this is why you need terrific actors). Like her television counterparts, there is an unspoken dread in Gunderson's writing, of roiling the waters beyond the prettiness of laying down a little pop-culture morality in lace and crinolines.

Fortunately, Insight Theatre gives us the finest actors it can dragoon into feel-good shows like this. And Artistic Director Maggie Ryan thoughtfully directs a cast headed by Gwendolyn Wotawa as the first distinguished female astronomer, Henrietta Leavitt. Ms. Wotawa does an amazing job, every time, of balancing deep naturalism with a poet's understanding of all the external requirements of stage acting. Strangely, in that naturalistic style, three or four lines she delivers in a throwaway manner become almost as beautiful as any Shakespearean farewell. She, director Ryan, and the rest of the cast and crew add in everything Silent Sky needs to get itself off the ground: subtlety, internal struggle, and a mystical transcendence beyond the self-congratulatory tone of the text.

Equally as great as its leading lady, for reasons that may seem elusive, is Jennifer Theby-Quinn as Henrietta Leavitt's sister. Ms. Theby-Quinn must rise to the occasion and invisibly wag her finger and supply nearly all the reasons that Henrietta should feel guilty enough to abandon her entire life's work (in this case, of discovering pulsars, and laying the groundwork for male astronomers like Edwin Hubble to accurately measure the universe) for the sake of their family. But because the playwright can't deal with the anguish of head-on confrontation, or with internal confrontation, only fleetingly, we have characters like Henrietta's sister Margaret (Ms. Theby-Quinn), or Lady Catharine DeBourgh's unfortunate daughter in Christmas At Pemberley—who must each harrumph around, generating the appearance of drama at regular intervals, like a smoke alarm with low batteries. But Ms. Theby-Quinn comes with great comedic credentials, and she unerringly understands the deep requirements of joke (or play) construction, fulfilling all those needs with fearsome levels of anguish and comedy and charm, as needed, for her stage sister and the play.

Elizabeth Ann Townsend and Chrissy Calkins Steele portray Henrietta's co-workers: the pair of women who first devised the modern system of gauging and cataloguing stellar intensity, using glass negative photographic plates from the largest telescope of the 1900s. And these two women become endearing and original creations within the play. Ms. Townsend, as Annie Cannon, got a rousing ovation at the performance I saw, which also happened to be a fundraiser for The League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis. She comes back on at one point after a suffragette rally, wearing a sash reading "Votes for Women," and of course the house went wild (by the standards of your usual Sunday matinee). Ms. Steele, as Williamina Fleming, is as whimsical as Ms. Townsend is imposing, and the pair make a fine team.

Alex Freeman, as Ms. Leavitt's intended, presents white male privilege in a low-key and winning way (befitting the playwright's style) in the role of the women's supervisor. As Peter Shaw, he unapologetically lays out not just the subordination of women at Harvard's interstellar program 100 years ago, but the equally vain presumption that the entire universe is only as big as our galaxy, as well. Without cringe or hesitation, he glides along in a state of complete certainty, wrong on every count. And thanks to Mr. Freeman's performance, Shaw is also a frustrated Gilbert & Sullivan enthusiast who is at least implicitly suborned by the same conventions of the time. Anyway, he's the obligatory authority figure, and object of romance, and the actor manages to be both desirable and non-threatening, while adding in flashes of torment along the way. Sometimes, being an ingénue is hard work.

So all these trailblazing women can do is politely work around him, on their way toward a vastly larger creation. Again, it's not "conflict," per se, but it'll do—with the right people to bring it all to life.

Silent Sky, through November 4, 2018, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand, St. Louis MO. For more information visit

Henrietta Leavitt: Gwendolyn Wotawa*
Margaret Leavitt: Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Peter Shaw: Alex Freeman
Annie Cannon: Elizabeth Ann Townsend*
Williamina Fleming: Chrissy Calkins Steele

Creative Team:
Director: Maggie Ryan
Lighting Design: Rob Lippert
Stage Manager: Jessica Fleeman
Costume Design: Julian King
Set Design: Constance Vale, Jasmin Aber/Creative Exchange Lab
Sound Design: James "Fish" Blanton
Wardrobe Manager: Jennifer Blum-Tatara
Assistant Stage Management: Abigail Rosen
Run Crew: Jacob Mark Callahan
Set Builder: Ryan Schaper

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association